“Evocative, funny [and] highly appealing.” —Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling
In her best-selling debut, Commencement, J. Courtney Sullivan explored the complicated and contradictory landscape of female friendship. Now, in her highly anticipated second novel, Sullivan takes us into even richer territory, introducing four unforgettable women who have nothing in common but the fact that, like it or not, they’re family.
For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. Their beachfront property, won on a barroom bet after the war, sits on three acres of sand and pine nestled between stretches of rocky coast, with one tree bearing the initials “A.H.” At the cottage, built by Kelleher hands, cocktail hour follows morning mass, nosy grandchildren snoop in drawers, and decades-old grudges simmer beneath the surface.
As three generations of Kelleher women descend on the property one summer, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.
By turns wickedly funny and achingly sad, Maine unveils the sibling rivalry, alcoholism, social climbing, and Catholic guilt at the center of one family, along with the abiding, often irrational love that keeps them coming back, every summer, to Maine and to each other.
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J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel Commencement. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, New York, Elle, Glamour, Allure, and Men’s Vogue, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
From our Q&A with the author:
Q: Why Maine (as in, the state)?
A: I grew up outside of Boston, about a ninety-minute drive from southern Maine. We went to the Ogunquit/Wells/York area all the time, whether it was to rent a little cottage on the beach for a week or just to have a lobster dinner at Barnacle Billy’s. I love that part of New England so much. It’s physically beautiful and has such a rich history. I’ve always been intrigued by the artists’ colony that popped up in Perkins Cove in the late 19th century. The juxtaposition of urban painters and Maine lobstermen living side by side seemed like it was just begging to be put in a novel.
Also, the Kellehers are a family in which everyone talks about everyone else behind their backs; each has an opinion on the shortcomings of the others. The funny thing is, they’re all right. I like the idea of family bonds having elasticity to them, so that even when they’re stretched to the breaking point, they rarely just go ahead and break. A secluded family beach house seemed like the perfect setting for all of this to percolate.
Q: Maine is told from the point of view of four women in the Kelleher family. Alice, the matriarch, Maggie, Alice’s granddaughter, Kathleen, the prodigal daughter, and Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter in law. How and why did you choose to focus on these four women out of all the characters in the novel?
A: I wanted to explore how certain things—like alcoholism, religion, resentments, and secrets—move from one generation to the next. We hear women say all the time, “Please God, don’t let me turn into my mother.” In most cases, we either become a lot like our mothers or we work like hell to do the exact opposite of what they did, which creates all new problems. The mother-daughter dynamic is powerful and often fraught, so I wanted to really dig into that. With Kathleen and Alice, we have a mother-daughter pair who can never seem to see eye-to-eye. Kathleen tries to cultivate a much more casual relationship with her own daughter, more of a friendship. In turn, her daughter Maggie longs for boundaries.
In early drafts, there were more voices: Ann Marie’s daughter, Kathleen’s sister Clare. But these four women rose to the top. Alice and Maggie are the generational bookends. Kathleen represents the one who went away—the complex blend of guilt and freedom that comes from throwing off one’s familial responsibilities. Ann Marie is essential because, as an in-law, she represents a sort of outsider, even though she is Alice’s main caretaker.
Though we’re not inside the heads of the other characters, I tried to make every member of the family three-dimensional. Many early readers have said that Daniel, the grandfather, is their favorite character, and he died ten years before the present day action of the book. There’s something about that that seems right to me. Often, the people whose presence looms largest are the ones who are no longer here.
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