Academy Street is deceivingly short, clocking in at 145 pages. Mary Costello fits an entire lifetime into this space, and while my original thought was that there was no possible way to fit a lifetime in such a short space properly, with all the deep meaning and detail, I was so very, very wrong.
Tess Lohan is the quiet character, and in many books she’d be the one-lined, barely named side character. Her life is nothing short of ordinary, at least as far as story plotting usually goes. There’s nothing special about Tess; she has no great talent, she’s not effervescently beautiful, there’s nothing powerful or magical about her. She is simply a girl who turns into a woman who lives her life in the poignant beauty and tragedy of moments and choices strung together over seventy years. She’s normal. She’s everyone, and it was one of the most refreshing things about this story.
Tess begins her life in Ireland, the middle child of a big Irish family, lost in the shuffle upon her mother’s early death. This, and her father’s depression afterwards, begin to shape her choices as she searches for meaning and love in her teens and early twenties. She follows her sister to the U.S., living with her aunt in New York City where she earns a living as a nurse. There’s virtually no plot, aside from following Tess’ journey through her every-man’s days, but this book was anything but boring. Costello captures the deep essence of pain and joy, the little moments that both build and destroy. She structures the choices and the careful characterization of Tess and her family in such a way that they are special in their ordinariness. Tess’ family could be anyone’s family. Her story could be any number of people living in New York City in her time period. Much like Joyce’s “Dubliners,” Academy Street is a window into an ordinary life in all its devastating glory.
While this wasn’t a ‘fun’ read exactly, it was a quality read, and I recommend it for nothing more than the novelty of reading a book about an ordinary person.