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In ‘Maine,’ frayed family ties still bind

By Howard Frank Mosher,

If the three generations of guilt-ridden, backbiting, willful, scheming Kelleher women in J. Courtney Sullivan’s new novel could just learn to keep their mouths shut, even part of the time, their lives wouldn’t be nearly so tumultuous. Of course, “Maine” wouldn’t be nearly so hilarious, either.

Exhibit A is Alice, the razor-tongued matriarch. Alice isn’t just difficult. At times, she’s downright impossible, swinging from charming to venomous. During a family blowup, she goes so far as to say that her granddaughter, an aspiring novelist named Maggie, is “a little tramp like her mother, has absolutely no common sense, and has just flushed her chances at being a real writer down the toilet” — not a word is remotely accurate.

But when Alice makes a momentous decision concerning the family’s oceanside summer home in Maine, wildly comic hell breaks loose. Soon, Alice’s daughter, Kathleen, a recovering alcoholic and worm farmer (that’s right), arrives from California. She might have the sharpest wit of all the Kelleher women, and she’s deeply resentful of the way her mother has reacted to her life.

After divorcing her husband, Kathleen had gone “on lots of dates which . . . Alice thought made her the whore of Babylon. A mother shouldn’t be sexual, God forbid. She should have her vagina sealed over with plaster and declare herself closed for business, no matter if she was thirty-nine years old and only beginning to realize who she was.” Understandably, since she got sober, Kathleen’s main objective has been “trying not to turn into her mother.”

Maggie, Kathleen’s writer daughter, arrives in Maine very much pregnant by “an overprivileged slacker photographer” in New York. Then Ann Marie, Alice’s good-hearted but terribly repressed daughter-in-law, descends on the scene, lugging her dollhouse kit, with which the poor woman hopes to “create a life with order and beauty.”

While much of “Maine” takes place within a stone’s throw of the beach — a gorgeous young woman in a bikini adorns the dust jacket — I wouldn’t by any means call it a “beach book.” It’s far too ambitious for that, especially in its clear-eyed examination of the way the Kellehers’ ancestral Catholicism both assuages and fosters their guilt. Alice, in particular, is haunted by a terrible secret involving the death of a beloved sister in the 1942 Cocoanut Grove Club inferno, which killed nearly 500 people:

“Holiday ornaments, newly strung around the basement bar, caught fire. Flames flew up the stairs and tore through the flimsy silk draping, all the way up to the roof. Fireballs dropped down onto the tables and the bar and the bandstand and the floor, where seven hundred people were crammed in, dancing, drinking, flirting, and then — a moment later — pushing toward the doors, fighting to get out alive, which precious few of them did.”

As Alice’s future husband is quick to assure her, she was never in any real way responsible for the horrific fate of her sister, the woman immortalized by Boston newspapers as “Maiden Mary.” Sullivan’s revelations of Alice’s tormented psyche, however, are wise and illuminating. It’s not surprising that as her guilt putrefies into self-loathing, she’s compelled to make the lives of her loved ones, particularly the women in her family, a torment as well.

“The Kellehers were crazy people, that was all,” Ann Marie reflects at one point. Exactly. And yet, like Elizabeth Strout’s conflicted junior high teacher, Olive Kitteridge, they are appealing partly because of their oh-so-­human shortcomings. Sullivan’s Maine is a state of mind, one of the few constants in the Kellehers’ lives. For all their squabbling, when they’re together Down East, they can “float, as if in amber.”

I enjoyed every page of this ruthless and tender novel about the way love can sometimes redeem even the most contentious families. Like all first-rate comic fiction, “Maine” uses humor to examine the truths of the heart, in New England and far beyond.

Mosher is the author of 10 novels including, most recently, “Walking to Gatlinburg.”

MAINE By J. Courtney Sullivan Knopf. 388 pp. $25.95

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