MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan

Maine Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan was on many recommended summer reading lists this summer, and with two days to spare, I finished it this summer! (Hello fall, in two days!)

Maine is about the Kellehers, a large New England Irish Catholic family with a summer house in Maine. (What is it about Maine that inspires so many people to write fiction about it?) Alice, the matriarch of the family, spends her whole summer there, and her three children (and their children) each visit for a month of the summer. But most of Maine isn't about the summer; instead, the book is mostly character development, with each chapter told from the perspective of a rotating woman – Alice, her daughter Kathleen, Kathleen's daughter Maggie, and Alice's daughter-in-law Ann Marie.

Some people have criticized this book for not having enough plot. That didn't bother me. I liked the character development. I enjoyed learning about what had brought each of these women to where they were at the start of the summer in question – how their relationships with each other and the rest of their family had shaped them into the women they are.

Maine is full of conflict, as most of the Kellehers don't get along, particularly with Alice, a difficult person. But by shifting perspective, often when describing the same events, Sullivan successfully makes each of these women sympathetic. None of them is perfect, of course, but they each have virtue, and often it is simply the others that bring out the worst (and very occasionally the best) in each other. I liked Sullivan's exploration of family dynamics - complete with secrets, grudges and mischaracterizations – and the shifting shades of gray that make them interesting.

If you need a fast-moving plot, you may be frustrated with the analytical, foundation-building pace of Maine. But if you like meaty family dramas (think Jennifer Haigh or Sue Miller), this may be the book for you. I recommend it.

[You may be looking for a plot, FTC, but you won't find it in this post - I bought this one, and paid retail! In a bookstore!]

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9 Comments

  • September 20, 2011 - 8:28 am | Permalink

    I was disappointed by the lack of plot in this one, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as you did.

  • September 20, 2011 - 8:40 am | Permalink

    This was one of my favorite reads of the summer!

  • Sarah
    September 20, 2011 - 9:34 am | Permalink

    I look forward to reading this. I read “Commencement” this summer, also by Sullivan, which sounds similar in many respects, particularly the lack of plot. In “Commencement,” however, it seems as though Sullivan gets anxious about the lack of plot and in the last third or so of the novel, and throws in a dramatic story line. This feels inconsistent with the rest of the book which, like “Maine,” is about the characters and their relationships more than anything else. The drama doesn’t gel with the earlier pace of the book. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed “Commencement,” and look forward to reading “Maine.”

  • Kiki
    September 20, 2011 - 11:45 am | Permalink

    Sounds REALLY good–I have a sample on my Kindle…definitely sounds like a possible book group read too–thanks! Great review! (I love character focused novels….more like life, to me.)

  • Kiki
    September 20, 2011 - 11:49 am | Permalink

    Sounds REALLY good–I have a sample on my Kindle…definitely sounds like a possible book group read too–thanks! Great review! (I love character focused novels….more like life, to me.)

  • Susan
    September 23, 2011 - 2:18 pm | Permalink

    This was one of my favorite books of the summer and I loved how she developed the characters. I thought she did a great job of slowly revealing what happened to Alice’s sister Mary and how that so profoundly affected Alice. I loved Ann Marie and her dollhouses!

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