One person in my book club thought this book boring because the main character never amounted to much, but the rest of us loved it and partly for that reason. This slim novel tells the story of one life, one ordinary and astonishing life. Marie is seven when we first meet her, sitting on the stoop waiting for her father to come home, a not particularly attractive child, burdened with thick glasses. There is nothing so clumsy as a year to tell us the time period. Instead, an accumulation of finely observed details clues us in: boys playing stickball in the street; a girl wearing a spring coat, feathered hat, gloves, and a run in her stocking. As another book club member said, McDermott involves us in the story by making us think a little bit and put things together ourselves.
Marie's story is roughly chronological with the interpolation of scenes from other time periods. As yet another friend from book club said, these interpolations feel like a natural association of ideas. For example, that first scene on the stoop when Pegeen, the girl with the run in her stocking, tells Marie about falling and how there is always someone there to help her up is followed by a scene where Marie, now grown and pregnant, falls “and I remembered Pegeen then: there's always someone nice.” The flow mimics the way our minds work, our memories, bringing together two incidents to shed new light on both. And these are memories. They are Marie's reminiscences from late in life. We are signaled that partly by the tone, but also by these sentences at the end of the first scene:
I shivered and waited, little Marie. Sole survivor, now, of that street scene. Waited for the first sighting of my father, coming up from the subway in his hat and coat, most beloved among all those ghosts.
One of the things I like best about this story is the way we seem to be headed for a big dramatic scene, a blowup of some sort, only to find pleasant and helpful people: “there's always someone nice.” For example, the owner of the local funeral home is named Fagin, leading me to expect some cruel bully, but he turns out to be perfectly kind and determined to change the public's perception of his name. Occasionally the teasing gets carried too far or someone's difficulties are not fully understood, but no one is evil. There are no monsters here. The emotional progression in these scenes is subtle and sure. McDermott proves that you don't need a car chase or a train wreck to create suspense and hold a reader's interest.
Most of all I loved the sense of community: several of us envied Marie's neighborhood. There's always someone there to help you up. There is a place for everyone: clumsy Pegeen, Walter Hartnett who wears a built-up shoe, blind Bill Corrigan who had been gassed in the war. Much later when Marie meets Walter after a difficult parting and the passing of many years, they fall into easy reminiscences: “It might have been the first time in my life I understood what an easy bond it was, to share a neighborhood as we had done, to share a time past.”
Marie is strong-minded and a bit rebellious, but she has reasons for her assertions, even if she may not understand them until later in life. For example, she refuses to apply for a job downtown because she's heard that it's dangerous there. But when her mother tells her that Fagin is looking for someone to help out in the funeral home, she complies. And that job, unlikely as it may seem, is exactly what she needs. We see her grow into a competent and sensitive woman. She learns when it is best to remove her glasses and when she needs to see more clearly. She realizes what a key role the funeral home plays in the community, in those times when death was more common, before so many childhood and other diseases were tamed. It is an agora for the neighborhood, a commons, a place where everyone gathers. The only equivalent in this predominantly Irish neighborhood is the church.
The telling of even an ordinary person's life can take up volumes. McDermott has selected the ideal scenes and presented them in nuanced perfection to give us Marie's life: her childhood with her beloved father, strong mother, and golden boy of an older brother; her teens with her first grief and first love; marriage and children with all the pain and fear and comfort that they bring; all the way to old age when her defective sight begins to fail entirely. I loved the use of sight as a motif throughout, not just Marie, but Bill Corrigan, the neighbor who was blinded in the war. It is a sweet story, strong like honey in the comb.
Some people in my book club thought the title too minimalist, that it didn't convey the richness and depth of the story inside, but others of us thought it perfect: like Marie's life, so ordinary from the outside, so dazzling within.
What books have you come across that have the perfect title or, conversely, a title that is all wrong?