By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 240 pages
Alice McDermott's new novel "Someone" is the story of an ordinary girl growing up between the world wars in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marie tells her story not necessarily in chronological order. What makes the story extraordinary is the detail of time and place, and the depth of the characters, ordinary people presented with a freshness and turn of phrase that makes each someone unique. "Someone" is an old-fashioned novel, written with wit and insight.
Marie's first-person account begins when she is 7 years old, "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." "'A bold piece' is what my mother called me,'" she explains.
Her best friend is Gerty Hanson, who "was made to say the Rosary with her family every night after dinner, her mother and father and all three of her big brothers kneeling on the floor around the parents' bed." After Gerty's generous mother died in childbirth, Marie refused to learn how to cook. "I thought if I learned to cook, my mother would die. The way it happened to my friend. I was a stubborn child."
The girls spent many hours on their front stoops, watching the neighborhood boys play stickball. Blind Bill Corrigan, "who had been gassed in the war" and "wore a business suit and polished shoes," presided over the games. "[A]lthough there was a glitch in the skin around his eyes, a scarred shine in the satiny folds of his eyelids, although he was brought to the kitchen chair every afternoon when the weather was fine by his mother, whose arms he held the way a bride holds the arm of a groom, it was to him that the boys in the street appealed whenever a dropped ball or an untimely tag sent both teams howling and cawing, to his side of the street ... begging [him] to make the call."
Marie adored her alcoholic father; she loved her mother and her handsome brother, Gabe, who was ordained a priest, but lost his vocation and ended up years later in a mental hospital. "My brother was a mystery to me, but a mystery I had always associated with the sacred darkness of the bedroom we had shared in Brooklyn, or the hushed groves of the seminary, or the spice of the incense in the cavernous church ... . Incomprehensible, yes, but in the same way that much that was holy was incomprehensible to me, little pagan."
Marie was courted by crippled Walter Hartnett; she loved him "for the hitch in his walk, the built-up shoe, as much as she loved him for his clever smile and his gray eyes." When he dropped her to marry a girl who "was better looking, really. No flaws ... like you and me," she was devastated. When she asked her brother in despair "who's going to love me?" he answered, "Someone ... Someone will."
Afraid to work in Manhattan, Marie accepted a job as hostess in the neighborhood funeral parlor, tempted by the offer of five new dresses that went along with the job. Mr. Fagin, the proprietor, explained to her that "[i]t's rest for the weary eye at the end of a long vigil, the sight of someone young, a lovely young woman such as yourself. It reminds us of life. Life again, which is also the hope of resurrection."
Ultimately, someone did love her. Marie married a kind young man; she had children and grandchildren and a happy marriage. She almost lost her life giving birth to her first child, and suffered unhappy consequences late in life when a cataract was removed from the wrong eye.
The characters are not glamorous, but Miss McDermott's descriptions give them a special reality. For example, Pegeen Chehab, a neighbor, had "a loping hunchbacked walk. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone ... . She was not a pretty girl particularly; there was a narrowness to her eyes and a wideness to her jaw, crooked teeth, wild eyebrows, and a faint mustache."
The rhythm of Miss McDermott's prose colors the simple things of everyday life. As Marie and her brother sat on a bench, they "watched a young man pass by with his jacket over his shoulder, a thick book in his hand. Then a pair of policemen with swinging billy clubs. A trio of thin sailors."
There is much pleasure for the reader in this beautifully written story of a life filled with joy and pain, sorrow and delight in a neighborhood of poverty but replete with the rich fabric of everyday life.
Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.