- - Friday, September 9, 2011

By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf, $25.95, 400 pages

Like many fictional characters, the Boston-Irish Kellehers of J. Courtney Sullivan’s “Maine,” are not perfect. For the most part they are not lovable either, and that is not simply because they are flawed; it’s because most of them are not charming. That’s quite rare in a novel.

Authors often entice readers onto the side of all sorts of dubious people, but except perhaps in the case of Maggie, Ms. Sullivan maintains a sensible distance from the four women she writes about. By taking the long view she shows them over time and in different places, making them both more believable and more interesting. You wouldn’t necessarily want to spend much time with them in the living flesh, but you do want to turn the pages to see what they get up to next, and you do understand their impulses and grieve with them in their losses.

The four women come from three generations of the Kellehers. Alice is the most powerful. Always beautiful, always ambitious, she suffered a tragedy in her early 20s that has shaped her life - and not for the better. She never speaks of the event that so traumatized her, but at 83 spends her days sitting on the porch of her house in Maine, drinking, smoking, chasing rabbits from her vegetable patch and irking her three children: Kathleen, Patrick and Clare.

Kathleen is the black sheep. Now in her 50s, she’s divorced, has been through AA, and settled in California to run a worm farm. Her late-found business success cuts no ice with Alice, nor with the rest of the family, who roll their eyes at the mention of the yoga and organic food and meditation and worms that now keep her stable and happy.

Kathleen’s sister-in-law, Ann Marie, couldn’t be more different. Mrs. Homemaker, she cooks, she sews, she minds everyone else’s kids, she goes to church and she looks out for Alice. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t always get the rewards she deserves. She and Patrick are bourgeois successes - and Ms. Sullivan does not make light of that or of the work Ann Marie does. But the down side is that she can’t admit that her daughter is gay or that her son can’t hold down a job.

Ann Marie and Patrick assume they will inherit Alice’s property in Maine. It includes a cottage where the family spent idyllic childhood summers, and a modern house Patrick built for Alice so he and his sisters could take summer turns in the cottage. They all love it, but Ann Marie and Patrick have the biggest financial and social investment in it. Seems reasonable that it should become theirs. But not to Alice; she has other plans.

Why is she so obnoxious? “Maine” takes readers back to Alice’s early years, growing up in a large family with an alcoholic father. She decided it was not for her; she would be an artist instead. Her sister Mary could be the good mother. But Mary died, and Alice married.

Ms. Sullivan lets readers ponder Alice’s change of heart about marriage and motherhood before finally revealing how it came about. Similarly, she makes clear that Kathleen, never much loved by her mother, has blundered into numerous messes without explaining every detail. And with Maggie, too, she suggests rather than explains that the boyfriend who backed away when she got pregnant is only the latest in a string of inadequate partners. These lacunae heighten curiosity about the stuff the Kellehers brush under the carpet. What exactly has gone wrong with Ann Marie’s son, for example? What was Alice’s marriage like?

Her husband, Daniel, was much loved and much mourned. Ms. Sullivan suggests that he has held his dysfunctional family together, but that since his death the inevitable work of time and his wife’s temperament are ushering its members onto separate and perhaps happier paths.

Daniel is one of several characters who never appear on the pages of “Maine” except as a memory. Others include Alice’s parents and her sister Mary, and two of Ann Marie’s three children. Her third daughter plays only a walk-on part, as do Clare and Kathleen’s new partner, Arlo. Ms. Sullivan skillfully manages the relationship among these background characters and the central figures of Alice, Kathleen, Ann Marie and Maggie. Occasionally, she pulls one of them into sharper focus, only to let them drift into the background again, suggesting a rich world full of other stories still to be told about what has been happening to the Kellehers.

Indeed, Ms. Sullivan’s deft handling of the relationships between foreground and background, between her starring characters and her minor players, is one of her most aesthetically pleasing talents. Another is her ability to suggest the feel of other times and places. She evokes the grittiness of Boston’s Irish suburbs in the 1930s and ‘40s; the exhilarating beauty of the Maine coast in summer, the charms of Maggie’s adopted home in Brooklyn, the rambunctiousness of GIs on leave during WWII and, most dramatically, the sheer terror of the fire that killed Alice’s sister.

Indeed, her skills as a novelist are formidable. “Maine” could be described as a family saga or as a novel about generational change or as an Irish-American story. But most important, it’s an artful and satisfying work, with lots to say about family dynamics, the power of memory and the losses and gains that weave the pattern of a lifetime.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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