It’s hard to give a plot summary for this novel because I’m not sure there is a clear plot line. The narrator Marie gives us her life story, an ordinary life with love and loss, births and deaths, set in Brooklyn from her 1920s’ girlhood through WWII, then marriage and family. It’s about what happens to her, her neighbors, her parents and brother. These are ordinary lives but no life is really just ordinary. There’s always more to people than you realize.
McDermott’s writing is so engaging, beautiful and evocative, it will draw you in page after page. Her description of the way Marie felt when her first love Walter dumped her for another would probably resonate with many who have been through the same: “I wanted to reach behind my neck and unhook the flesh from the bone, open it along the zipper of my spine, step out of my skin and fling it to the floor. Back shoulders stomach and breast. Trample it. Raise a fist to God for how He had shaped me in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.” The supporting characters are drawn with varying degrees of detail, but their relationship to Marie and often some tragic story from their lives give them depth and consequence. Marie’s best friend Gerty lost her mother while still a child; neighbor Bill Corrigan was blinded in WWI; brother Gabe seemed destined for a life in the priesthood but ended up on another path; and neighbor Pegeen Chehab, the “amadan” (fool), died too young. My favorite part of the book is set at Fagin’s funeral parlor, where Marie worked as a “consoling angel.” Marie sometimes sat in on gossip sessions with old Mrs. Fagin and the nuns who visited her daily. From these women Marie learned the unofficial biographies of the dead. “‘What’s going on downstairs?’ Mrs. Fagin would ask, waiting for me to name the dead. And when I did, she and her compatriots would lean together to tell as best they could the story of the life — breathing words onto cold embers … getting them to glow.” Marie imagines what the ladies would say were she to die, how they would, no doubt, have known about her father’s drinking, her mother’s financial struggles, her own heartbreak and the reason her brother left the priesthood. “And they would know as well how to choose their words to tell a kinder tale.”
As elderly Marie narrates her life, the stories do not always follow strict linear progression. That’s not the problem though. What confounds me is what is this supposed to be about? What is the point? There’s no obvious clash of forces that needs to be resolved, no great mystery to be unraveled. It reads like a real life story — sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, with pain and happiness. I suppose that’s why, on the whole, I really enjoyed it and sped right through. Marie is a regular person who lived a life with ups and downs, just like the rest of us. This was an appropriate choice of novel after reading Book of Ages — the non-fiction work about Jane Franklin, another ordinary person whose unique story might be overlooked. Everyone has a tale to tell. We’re all someone, after all.