At my book club’s April meeting I presented three books for the group to choose from and the overwhelming vote was for Someone by Alice McDermott – because it is quite short! However, I was pleased with the choice as this is a novel I’ve contemplated reading for quite a while now and Sunday over at Ciao Domenica had nothing but praise for it which piqued my interest even more.
This is one of those books that is more of a character study than anything – there really isn’t a traditional plot arc that holds it all together. In fact, the narrative moves in out and between the present and the past with no discernible transitions so it takes about 20 pages to realize what McDermott is doing and to become comfortable with the structure. Once you do, though, it’s quite easy to ride the wave of the main character’s memories.
The novel is told in the first person by Marie Commeford, an elderly woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Most of her memories center on the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Her family is Irish Catholic and live in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood and she is close to her beloved father and older brother who’s already been chosen to attend seminary at a young age. Most of her memories have that tender, almost yearning quality that we have as adults looking back on our childhoods. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment in her life, but she tells her story very straightforwardly with little regret. As I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a lot that happens in the novel yet Marie’s unexceptional story is riveting, more riveting to me than that of a spy story or an adventure story. Reading about ordinary people is always fascinating because most of us are ordinary – yet when you read something like this you realize that everyone has an interesting life and that, truly, everyone is ‘someone’.
How did my book club like it? Well, I think the majority of us appreciated it, but there were two members who didn’t – they didn’t see the point of the meandering style and just didn’t enjoy reading about Marie’s life. Despite that we all managed to have a pretty lively discussion about the book and I think it really set off a lot of related examination of our own memories and life stories. All in all, I’d recommend this for book clubs as it is a) short and b) brings up a lot of issues that will lead to a thoughtful discussion.
Have you read Alice McDermott?
“But she observed her sister, hoping to learn something. All she could find out, though, was that Lucy took an absorbed interest in things she herself could take no interest in at all; endless books for instance, tame solitary pursuits like gardening and walking, domestic drudgery like cooking and working in the house, in silly things like hens, and in going to the help of tiresome people in the village who were always appealing to her about something. Lucy also took an open, and in Vera’s opinion, eccentric interest in God. She wanted to know more and more about God, she said. She said life was discovery and that was why you didn’t need to mind about growing old, because the older you got the farther you walked down the road of life and the more you found out. She thought that after death you went on learning. She really believed it, you could see it in her face, glowing with an interest which merely surprised Vera who felt nothing of it at all.” – from They Were Sisters
This passage neatly sums up the character of Lucy and is why I love her so. I admire her seemingly simple view of life, her uncomplicated interests and her idea that life is all about discovery. I’ve read this paragraph several times and it thrills and appeals to me each time.
Is there a character from a novel whose philosophy of life resonates with you?
The past two weeks at work have been pretty stressful, with people on vacation, out sick or at meetings. The kids in our community are out of school next week and preparations for our summer reading program are in high gear, which also makes things slightly tense around the library. We’re all loaded down with tasks and have to cover the desk as well and it all gets to be a bit too much when lots of people are out. In order to relieve the stress every evening I turned to They Were Sisters, an excellent novel by an author I don’t think I’ve much appreciated up to this point.
Lucy, Vera and Charlotte grow up in a well-to-do-family with a lawyer father, in comfort and safety. Lucy is the nurturer (especially after their mother passes away), Vera is the beauty and Charlotte the gentle, fun-loving sister. When the sisters marry their lives take separate paths yet Lucy continues to look after her troubled sisters. High-spirited Vera marries a dull man and their unsuitability makes them both miserable. Charlotte has a harder life; her husband Geoffrey is emotionally and mentally abusive, a true sadist who enjoys making her unhappy and humiliating her and their children. Lucy, married to good William, watches her sisters’ lives fall apart with despair. As the years go on Vera and Charlotte fall further into troubles and Lucy endeavors to save both them (without much success) and their children.
Published in 1943 this novel was a bestseller and I can just imagine people reading it to escape their daily reality, much as I did. It is completely engrossing, filled with very colorful, well-drawn characters, lots of drama and lovely domestic details. It is also – and this was one of my main reasons for loving it so much – full of goodness. Lucy is a woman to be admired as she goes about her life trying to do good, be good and think good about others. She is now one of my all-time favorite characters from literature and one I aspire to be like and learn from.
Until now I’d never really loved a Whipple novel. I enjoyed Greenbanks and Someone at a Distance and liked The Priory, but I was missing the connection that I know others have felt to her writing. They Were Sisters is the book that’s put me in the Whipple fan club forever. Now it’s on to Because of the Lockwoods.
How do you feel about Dorothy Whipple? Fan or no?
Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway. I had a colleague at work draw a number and the winner is….Alice from Of Books! Congratulations, Alice.
Today is the fourth anniversary of Gudrun’s Tights. I had to double-check the date because it feels so much longer than four years – and not in a bad way. I’ve been a bit lax in blogging so far in 2015, but I’m always grateful to know that I have this space to return to when I want to discuss books, reading, England, and all my other passions with my lovely blog friends.
In past years I’ve given away classic novels for my blog birthday but this year I am giving away a contemporary novel that really feels like a classic and truly captured my reading imagination. In Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Anna Benz lives a life that so many can only dream of – she has a beautiful home in Switzerland, a handsome, responsible husband and three lovely children . Yet something is missing and so she has sex with strangers as an attempt to spark a flame in her empty heart. When her bad choices finally demand a consequence, her cultivated solitude and passivity leave her no where to turn. This is a blunt, sympathetic and haunting look into the heart of a modern housewife.
If you’d like to enter to win a copy of this most unsettling and memorable novel please fill out this form. The giveaway will close on Thursday, April 30, at 11:59 pm PST. I’ll announce the winner on Friday, May 1.
Thanks for reading and I hope you all have a great week!