There are many ways to write a novel.
You can dazzle the reader with an intricate narrative, full of clever twists and conundrums. You can set the novel on another planet; you can people it with vampires and time travelers. You can fill it with violence or sex or mathematical theorems. You can dazzle with your arcane knowledge, your vaulting ambition or your extraordinarily inventive voice.
Or you can simply set down, in plain language, the story of someone’s life. Through small, rich, intimate scenes, you can reveal how it was to be part of this family, this neighborhood. How it was to eat meals and have fights, to be loved, to be hurt. To have this marriage, these children, this life. You can, like Chekhov, inform this quiet narrative with compassion.
This is the way Alice McDermott chose to write “Someone,” her seventh novel.
“Someone” opens in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn, between the world wars. Time and place are delivered subtly, through familiar references: the zigzag rickrack trim on a mother’s apron, the game of stickball played in the street, the speakeasy down the alley. This is a neighborhood, and a community, that McDermott knows intimately, and we trust her.
The novel begins with a young woman called Pegeen, arriving home from work, watched by a child. Pegeen will vanish: It’s Marie, sitting on the stoop and waiting for her father, who’s at the center of the story. She is its modest narrator. “At seven, I was a shy child, and comical-looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eyes, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth — a little girl cartoon.” She’s shy, but a close observer. When Pegeen ruefully reveals a torn stocking, Marie reports, “I saw the laddered run, the flesh of Pegeen’s thin and dark-haired calf pressing through between each rung. The nail of the finger Pegeen ran over its length was bitten down to nothing, but the movement of her hand along the tear was gentle and conciliatory. A kind of sympathy for her own flesh.” One of the great strengths of the book lies in this sense of tenderness and intimacy, of empathy for the human condition.
Marie’s small family is composed of a handsome, beloved, alcoholic father, who sneaks a drink during his evening stroll with her; a cherished older brother, Gabe, who finds a vocation for the priesthood; and a fierce mother, who holds the family together.
The narrative unfolds slowly, through small moments of beauty and vividness. Marie’s best friend is Gertrude Hanson, whose mother is hugely pregnant. One afternoon, the girls feel a flood of affection for the beautifully voluptuous Mrs. Hanson. “Suddenly we were both covering Mrs. Hanson with kisses, cheeks, eyebrows, nose, and the corner of her laughing mouth. She embraced us both and we leaned upon the hard belly to keep from falling into each other across her knees.” The scene is lush with unexpected feeling, Mrs. Hanson’s laughter, the girls’ happiness, their deep sense of safety in her maternal presence.
A few days later, Marie’s mother is called by her husband’s office and told he’s “under the weather,” and she must fetch him home. Back at home, Marie finds her mother, who looks up at her. “ ‘Ah, Marie,’ she said . . . and would later apologize that she did not have the wherewithal, at that moment, to break the news more gently. ‘Poor Gertie’s lost her mother. . . . She passed away this morning. In agony,’ she added. ‘God give her peace.’ ”
The moments are small, but packed with complexity and emotion. In one brilliant scene, Marie enters adolescence; her mute and stubborn resistance brings her mother to a standstill: “ ‘I suppose this is how it’s going to be,’ she said softly, more to herself than to me. ‘You’re growing up.’ And then, for a moment, she put a gentle hand to my head. She said, ‘God help us both,’ and left the kitchen.”
Marie’s life contains the trauma that we all endure. She suffers a devastating betrayal by an opportunistic suitor. She endures her father’s appalling death, although she doesn’t know the worst of it until she nearly dies, years later, in childbirth. She sees her brother’s fall from grace and the decline of the neighborhood. She meets someone, with such dextrous subtlety that I had to go back and reread the passage, to see when it was that her husband entered her life. McDermott reminds us that this is how things work, that life unfolds itself in these small moments, without dazzle.
There are many reasons to write a novel.
One — maybe the best — is to bear compassionate witness to what it is to be alive, in this place, this time. This kind of novel is necessary to us. We need to know about other lives: This kind of knowledge expands our understanding, it enlarges our souls. There are differences between us, but there are things we share. Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief: Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom and caritas, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.
Robinson is the author of nine books, most recently the novel “Sparta.” She will be at the National Book Festival on the Mall on Sept. 22. On Wednesday at 7 p.m., McDermott will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus Giroux. 240 pp. $25