A Summer Story
A new novel by J. Courtney Sullivan is the perfect read for and about the Maine beach season.
By Kathleen Meil
If there ever was a summer read with enough drama to satisfy the urge for gossip — and just enough culture to elevate it above the standard beach book — it’s J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY; hardcover; 384 pages; $25.95).
Three generations of women retreat to their Ogunquit beach house to alternately escape and confront their messy lives. Ancient secrets and decades-old disputes influence every relationship the way sand infiltrates the house.
Alice is the hard-drinking Irish Catholic matriarch who judges everyone else in an unsuccessful effort to smother the things she cannot forgive in herself. She’s not the kind of woman anyone turns to for advice or consolation, but her opinions are the price of the Kelleher women retreating to the family’s beloved beachside cottage — and the Kelleher women are in need of retreat.
Alice’s granddaughter, Maggie, is the first to arrive. Single, pregnant, and recently dumped by her lousy boyfriend, Maggie decides to stay indefinitely, even though her Aunt Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, was counting on having the cottage to herself. Ann Marie has always aspired to perfection, but her golden children are showing some tarnish and her marriage is falling apart. The last thing she wants is the prying presence of her bitter sister-in-law, Kathleen, who arrives unannounced to offer Maggie some maternal guidance. Kathleen left the family bosom years ago when she divorced her cheating husband and got sober, but she cannot escape its gravitational pull.
The tension between these four women — like the tension in all families — is mostly old news. Based in childhood anger, adolescent slights, and all manner of drunken mistakes, their resentment for each other is infuriatingly familiar. Like a good therapist, Sullivan allows each woman her say, unfolding their family history through a series of intertwined stories. The reader gets the delicious role of the confidante who sees where those stories don’t match up.
Sullivan’s characters are, by turns, sympathetic and irritating; they are utterly real. Readers will want to sit the Kelleher women down and set things straight — to explain the roots of Alice’s depression, the depth of Maggie’s confusion, the agony of Ann Marie’s unraveling, the logic of Kathleen’s flight — but Sullivan stubbornly refuses any clarity. By the end of the summer, the women respect each other more, perhaps, but misunderstand each other all the same. There is little growth, little development, and little hope that this time they’ve spent together will change anything.
It’s some consolation that this frustrating lack of connection is set in a beautiful Maine summer. The Kelleher family home is on a stretch of Cape Neddick won by Alice’s late husband on a bet in 1945. The young, working-class couple builds a house there by hand and spends their summers entertaining family and friends.
It’s an idyllic time of children running wild, adults drinking cocktails at noon, and “always the ocean — before you and after you, breathing in and out for all eternity.” As the coastal camp evolves into a beachfront estate complete with an impressive big house, this paradise begins to fade. The negotiations of schedules, jostling for peak weeks, and uncomfortable silences about who will inherit the ancestral property are painfully accurate for many summer families.
Through it all, Sullivan offers up iconic destinations — like the clam shacks of Kittery and the Marginal Way in Ogunquit — with evocative adoration. There is a powerful sense of place, and an even stronger sense of longing for that place. Though they’d never admit it, the Kelleher women share an abiding attachment to their home in Maine, and it’s an attachment readers will recognize in themselves. Every summer resident has felt Ann Marie’s desperate hope: “At some point in the dead of winter, she had written the word MAINE on a Starbucks napkin and stuck it up under the visor . . . a reminder of what awaited her.”
Maine, the novel, earns our attention the way Maine, the state, earns our hearts. Sullivan’s observation about the Maine coast — that “you couldn’t come here and not be absorbed by it” — holds true for her novel, but the state provides a deep satisfaction the book can only dream of. In the end, Sullivan’s lovely, thoughtful writing cannot keep Maine from being a mostly forgettable book. But that’s what makes it a perfect summer read: How engaging it is while you’re in it, and how easily you can put it down to go for a swim.