Someone

By ALICE McDERMOTT

My son likes to joke that I like “inaction movies.” It’s true: give me conversations over a chase scene any day. So it’s no surprise that Alice McDermott’s quietly radiant seventh novel, Someone, an extraordinary portrait of the life of an absolutely ordinary woman, is right up my alley. You may wonder what there is to discuss about a book that — on the surface, at least — is about nothing more momentous than the quotidian existence of an Irish American, born on the cusp of the Depression, who marries, bears four children, and loses her parents and then her husband and brother. Plenty, as it turns out.

We first meet McDermott’s appealing narrator, Marie Commeford, as a seven-year-old waiting for her beloved father to return from work. While sitting on the stoop of the Brooklyn brownstone in which her Irish-born parents rent the top-floor apartment, little Marie has a conversation with a neighbor’s awkward daughter, who’s returning from her job in Lower Manhattan. Pegeen Chebab is wearing an outfit with which McDermott pinpoints the 1930s era without needing to specify a date: her powder blue “good spring coat,” single dove-gray glove (she’s lost its partner, her fourth pair in a month), hat adorned with “a brown feather or two,” silk stockings marred by a laddered run. Pegeen confides that she’s fallen — again — on the subway, and was helped by a handsome stranger whom she hopes to meet again.

All this would be eminently forgettable, except for the fact that Pegeen dies the very next day, after tumbling down her apartment house steps. Marie flashes on Pegeen’s story at various points throughout her life, including years later when she faints in a deli during her first pregnancy. Kind strangers come to her rescue, “and I remembered Pegeen then: There’s always someone nice.”

As in McDermott’s 1992 novel, At Weddings and Wakes, and her 1998 American Book Award winner, Charming Billy, death figures large. Marie’s best friend’s mother, as cozy as Marie’s is stern, dies in childbirth when the girls are ten, and Marie’s father succumbs to cancer when she’s fourteen. Her first job out of high school, which she holds for ten years, until that first wobbly pregnancy, is at the local funeral home, as a hostess greeting mourners. Living into her eighties, she survives both her husband and brother. Yet, far from morbid, Someone celebrates life (and its sustaining relationships) at its most commonplace, which of course includes death.

Hardly rebellious by today’s standards, young Marie earns the sobriquets “our little pagan” and “a bold piece” for her willful impertinences. She gets her mouth washed out with soap after calling her brother Amadan, the Irish word for fool — learned from Pegeen during that fateful last conversation. She obstinately refuses to learn to cook, seeing “a lifetime in the kitchen bearing down on us all” and recognizing that “Once you learn to do it, you’ll be expected to do it.” Only later does the deeper reason for her resistance emerge: her fear that if she masters cooking, like her best friend Gertie, she too will lose her mother.

The characters in Someone each bear crosses. Marie’s is poor sight – both literal eye trouble and metaphorical difficulty seeing what’s right before her, including the source of her pious, studious older brother Gabe’s resignation from the priesthood after just one year at his first parish. Walter Hartnett, Marie’s first boyfriend, who cruelly breaks off their engagement for a better physical and financial prospect, is driven by his determination to overcome his gimpy, shorter leg. Heartbroken Marie, feeling “unlovely and unloved,” asks her quietly supportive brother, “Who’s going to love me?” “ ’Someone,’ he told me. ‘Someone will.’ ”

He’s right. Tom Commeford, the father of her four children, is a good man, if insecure and overly loquacious. McDermott tips us off to his kind nature with a lovely scene in the hospital after Marie’s late-midlife surgery for a retinal tear. Panicking during the enforced blindness during her recuperation, Marie calls out, “Is anyone here?… ‘Me,’ a voice said hoarsely. And then, after a shy clearing of the throat, ‘I’m here.’…’Who is?’ I said….I knew him, of course, by his laughter. ‘Tom,’ he said. ‘Who else?’ ”

True to the way memory works, Someone jumps around in time, fast-forwarding from Marie’s girlhood to her mother’s last days (when Gabe has to reassure her that she isn’t “home,” meaning back in the Ireland she fled forever) and later to Marie’s eye surgeries. In a lesser writer’s hands, this could be jarring or undercut suspense — though suspense is pretty much beside the point here. McDermott’s graceful narrative leaps highlight the connective tissue that holds a life together.

Time, mortality, vision, and even the role of gossip in this tight community could all fuel book group discussions. What does severely myopic Marie fail to see, not just about her pained, sexually repressed brother but about her own life? It could be argued that her blindness is sometimes deliberate, as when she returns late one night from a fun date to Gabe’s anxious fears that in sinning she runs the risk of them not being together in eternity. She comments, “It was all a tangle, my brother’s faith, his vocation, his vows, his failure, and it only made me impatient to think of it, after such a lovely night. I wished he could be a simpler kind of man.” She turns away, having learned at her funeral home job “just how to hold myself aloof whenever someone else’s sorrow threatened to send me sprawling” — a useful life skill, if used sparingly.

Someone accrues its power line by line, through the subtle precision of its prose. When Marie’s elder daughter, a lawyer, curses the surgeon who botches her octogenarian mother’s cataract surgery and urges her to sue, Marie observes astutely, “I had long ago stopped reprimanding my children for their language….The world was a cruder, more vulgar place than the one I had known. This was the language required to live in it, I supposed.” That said, she responds, “I don’t see the world the way you kids do.” Her daughter replies, “Sometimes you don’t see it at all,” and Marie reflects with her characteristic self-awareness and good humor, “getting the last word. I had to laugh at that. She was my daughter, after all.”

In addition to McDermott’s earlier novels, readers in search of quietly resonant books about ordinary people might want to check out Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Gilead, and Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups and The Amateur Marriage. Religious themes are more prominent in Robinson’s lush prose, whereas Tyler’s wry focus is the tug between domesticity and freedom, with characters whose lives turn out so differently than expected that they often obsess over the road not taken or wonder whether they’re leading the wrong life. Not so the people McDermott introduces, whose lives are grounded by a comforting weight that feels like destiny.