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.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
“A fine-tuned, beautiful book filled with so much universal experience, such haunting imagery, such urgent matters of life and death.” The New York Times
“A remarkable portrait of an unremarkable life.” The New Yorker
“Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief: Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it's this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom, and caritas, that's at the heart of Alice McDermott's masterpiece.” Roxana Robinson, The Washington Post
“Just as McDermott manages to write lyrically in plain language, she is able to find the drama in uninflected experience. This is the grand accomplishment of Someone.” Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
“[McDermott's] sentences know themselves so beautifully: what each has to deliver and how best to do it, within a modicum of space, with minimal fuss...She understands that nothing is unalloyed, not kindness or cruelty, not gladness or despair. Here, in the most deceptively ordinary language, she evokes both the world of light and that of darkness...[Someone] has something of the quality of a slide show...Each slide, each scene, from the ostensibly inconsequential to the clearly momentous, is illuminated with equal care. The effect on the reader is of sitting alongside the narrator, sharing the task of sifting the salvaged fragments of her life, watching her puzzle over, rearrange and reconsider themand at last, but without any particular urgency or certitude, tilting herself in the direction of finally discerning their significance. This is a quiet business, but it's the sense-making we all engage in, the narrative work that allows us to construct a coherent framework for our everyday existence. It's also a serious business, the essential work of an examined life...McDermott's excellence is on ample display here.” Leah Hager Cohen, The New York Times Book Review
“Few contemporary writers can bring a time and place to life as well as Alice McDermott...Beginning in post-World War I Brooklyn, N.Y., and ending up in the split-level suburbs, [Someone] works the subtle magic of all good artits particulars yield a universal world...Exquisitely observed, the story takes liberties with time, juxtaposing Marie's past, present and future. The characters of her childhood continue to turn up, literally or in memory. Their secrets, their scandals and tragedies, color her adulthood...McDermott treats every character with unsentimental fondness. She never sets herself up to forgive or excuse; instead, she embraces each person with a kind of wonder and acceptance that becomes its own form of morality. A rare and lovely writer, she's given us another book brimming with earthly grace.” Tricia Springstubb, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“Novelist Alice McDermott, winner of the National Book Award and three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...does scene. And she's at her most brilliant doing it in Someone...Someone is ordinary Marie's scattered retellings of her ordinary life. In interviews, McDermott has discussed retellinghow it is not the same as what happened. Events take place, and then they are over. What we have to say about them afterward is colored or shaded. Memory transforms. As Marie is retelling, she jumps forward and back in time. Her nonlinear presentation, combined with her strangely faulty eyesight, keeps us fascinated.” Isabel Nathaniel, Dallas Morning News
“[Someone is] filled with subtle insights and abundant empathy and grace.” USA Today
“‘Ordinary' is a word that's used a lot to describe McDermott's characters, mostly Irish and working class, mostly un-heroic in any splashy way. McDermott's heroine is named Marie and in Someone, we readers hear, in a fragmented way, about the marathon span of her life...yet in McDermott's unsentimental rendering, Marie's ordinary life becomes one for the record books. That's the spectacular power of McDermott's writing: Without ever putting on literary airs, she reveals to us what's distinct about characters who don't have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special...[McDermott is] a master of silence and gesture.” Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“A quiet tour de force of a story. McDermott writes in lyrical yet methodical prose about an ordinary woman living an ordinary life, a seemingly nonstory with heartache, joy, suffering and beauty all simmering beneath the scattered recollections that make up the novel...Marie narrates the novel in a voice that is both subdued and compelling. Her life is punctuated by astute observations of the people around her as she grows from child to adolescent to adult...So skillful, so controlled...Ordinary life is made extraordinary by McDermott's tender characterization of women, of husbands, of sons, of parentsa life that includes both the dark and the light within the simply ordinary.” Eliana Smith, The Kansas City Star
“In this deceptively simple tour de force, McDermott...lays bare the keenly observed life of Marie Commeford, an ordinary woman whose compromised eyesight makes her both figuratively and literally unable to see the world for what it is...We come to feel for this unremarkable woman, whose vulnerability makes her all the more winningand makes her worthy of our attention. And that's why McDermott, a three-time Pulitzer nominee, is such an exceptional writer: in her hands, an uncomplicated life becomes singularly fascinating, revealing the heart of a woman whose defeats make us ache and whose triumphs we cheer. Marie's vision (and ours) eventually clears, and she comes to understand that what she so often failed to see lay right in front of her eyes.” Publishers Weekly (starred)
“One of the author's most trenchant explorations into the heart and soul of the 20th-century Irish-American family...Marie's straightforward narration is interrupted with occasional jumps back and forward in time that create both a sense of foreboding and continuity as well as a mediation on the nature of sorrow...Marie and Gabe are compelling in their basic goodness, as is McDermott's elegy to a vanished world.” Kirkus
“Readers who love refined, unhurried, emotionally fluent fiction will rejoice at National Book Award–winner McDermott's return. McDermott... is a master of hidden intensities, intricate textures, spiked dialogue, and sparkling wit. We first meet Marie at age seven, when she's sitting on the stoop in her tight-knit, Irish-Catholic Brooklyn neighborhood, waiting for her father to come home from work. Down the street, boys play stickball, consulting with dapper Billy, their blind umpire, an injured WWI vet. Tragedies and scandals surge through the enclave, providing rough initiations into sex and death . . . A marvel of subtle modulations, McDermott's keenly observed, fluently humane, quietly enthralling novel of conformity and selfhood, of ‘lace-curtain pretensions' as shield and camouflage, celebrates family, community, and ‘the grace of a shared past.'” Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
“[An] incantatory new novel, in which the landscape of memory is a chiaroscuro in motion and the sightlines are seldom entirely unobstructed...The maudlin and the twee that have tripped up so many others' attempts at Irish-American portraiture are no temptation for McDermott. She does not genuflect, nor does she cling to grievance. She looks with a sharp gaze and a generous spirit, finds multitudes even in a clan's closed air, and tells a clear-eyed, kinder tale.” Laura Collins-Hughes, The Boston Globe
“Stories of the ordinary become extraordinary...It's easy to understand why McDermott has been a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist for several of her books. Her subtle push to the reader to rely on other senses is brilliant, as her protagonist must do the same. McDermott has a way of transporting a reader not only to see the sights of the city, but also to absorb its heat, smell its food and feel its loss.” Beth Golay, KMUW Wichita Public Radio
“Alice McDermott is such a pleasure to read. Her new novel, her seventh, extends her outstanding body of work and further cements her stature as one of our finer writers.” Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“By presenting Marie's life in gorgeously realized anecdotes, [Someone] makes you understand that you, too, are constantly writing your own life, just as Marie has written hers, and that you might be more ordinary than you usually like to think yourself...[It will] astonish you with its image of the infinite anxiety of the human condition, the precariousness of existence, the difficulty and necessity of loving, the epics and comedies and tragedies and elegies embedded in every mundane, pedestrian life.” Stephanie Bernhard, Full Stop
“Someone, by Alice McDermott, is a book you will be lost in while the leaves float and swirl about...McDermott is the National Book Award winning author of Charming Billy. This is her first book in seven years and absolutely worth the wait.” Cathy Daniels, The Lansing State Journal
“Prize-winning author Alice McDermott has two hallmarks as a novelist: First, she writes intimately and well about the Irish Catholic world in which she grew up. Secondly, she uses ordinary people and events to uncover the extraordinary nature of daily existence...In her latest novel, Someone, she flips the tables with an unlikely heroine who finds love despite herself...Someone: It's not just a title, but also a central theme of a novel that looks at the wonders of love and marriage with a discerning eye . . . The most salient quality of the book, and McDermott's work in general, is her ability to capture the spoken and unspoken richness of our most important relationships.” Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times
“There is the temptation, after reading Alice McDermott, to read nothing else for the longest timeto hold every exquisite word of her most exquisite novels in your head...That she exercises patience, compassion and wisdom where others emphasize strut, that she trusts herself with the power of scenes over the inflated intricacies of complicated plot. There is the temptation to use the word 'genius' in association with McDermott's name.” Beth Kephart, The Baltimore Sun on Child of My Heart
“[A] wondrous new novel...Child of My Heart extends [McDermott's] artistic triumphs, and we should rejoyce.” Los Angeles Times Book Review on Child of My Heart
“A master...As good as any literary novelist writing today, and when I say that I include the big guns: Russell Banks, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison...All [McDermott's] books mirror the essential truths of existence so sure-handedly that they are neither comedies nor tragedies, but merely true.” Anna Quindlen on Child of My Heart
“Has something classic about it...[Its] craftsmanship and its moral intelligence are as one...Immaculate.” The New York Times Book Review on Child of My Heart
“Richly textured, intricately woven...A work not only of, but about, the imagination.” Margaret Atwood, The New York Review of Books on Child of My Heart
“In a league of her own.” People on Child of My Heart
“We have echoes and stirrings of Hardy, Shakespeare, Dickens, James, Beatrix Potter, Christina Rosetti...[Theresa] is a vessel containing a multitude of heroines, a transcendence of ethereal beauties who loved and live in the minds of their readers and inventors.” Chicago Tribune on Child of My Heart
“[A] quietly enchanting novel, graced by McDermott's well-calibrated writing and observant eye... Filled with subtle truths and hard-won wisdom.” The Charlotte Observer on Child of My Heart