March 2013: Maine
The Maine Event
To quote a certain Mr. Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” For four women in the Kelleher family, unhappiness comes in the form of secrets they can’t or won’t share (a hushed-up tragedy, a life-derailing real estate deal, an extramarital love—and that’s just for starters!). RealSimple.com deputy editor Maggie Shi, our resident food expert and a lover of all things Maine herself, led the discussion of the dishy, sink-your-teeth-into-it, dysfunctional-family saga Maine.
Maine:Through Page 174
Hope you’re enjoying the first portion of Maine as much as I am. I’m really loving the complexities of these relationships as they are gradually revealed…all with a good dose of Maine nostalgia. In these first few chapters, we get to know some of the key players: Alice, the widowed matriarch of this large and complicated family; Maggie, her 32-year-old granddaughter, who is secretly pregnant and in a toxic relationship with a deadbeat boyfriend; Kathleen, Maggie’s mother and Alice’s daughter, a divorced recovering alcoholic living in California with her hippie boyfriend; and Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, who strives to lead the perfect life: perfect kids, perfect home, perfect marriage. I love how each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective; we learn so much more from reading each woman’s perception of the others. And we start to see how each woman is an unreliable narrator in her own way, and how her opinions about other family members oftentimes reveals more about herself than the person she’s speaking about.
In this family (as in all families), everyone has a secret, many of which we have yet to learn. Although her family has been going to Maine every summer for 60 years, Alice has secretly willed the property and houses to her church. She also feels responsible for the death of her sister, though we haven’t gotten the full story yet. And—as we rather dramatically close out this first section—we learn that she nearly killed her children and herself in a car accident because she was drunk. Alice is a cold, judgmental woman who never wanted or liked kids—not even her own—and is an alcoholic to boot. But once we start learning more about Alice as a child and young woman, we begin to understand her better. She longed to attend art school, travel, be independent, be free; she never wanted to settle down, become a housewife, and raise children. But growing up in a poor, abusive household meant she was never able to attain her dreams. This was an interesting question for me—what happens when a woman who genuinely doesn’t like or want children ends up having them anyway? There were times I really felt for Alice; as a married, good Catholic girl in the 1940s, she had no choice but to have kids. But whether you wanted them or not, they’re still your children—and she was a terrible, awful mother who probably should have had her children taken away from her, as her husband threatened. Did you feel any sympathy for Alice, or did her cruel mothering skills wipe out any sympathy you had?
And now on to Maggie’s secret, her pregnancy. When her biological clock kicks in, she stops taking her birth control pills without telling her boyfriend—and, boom, she gets pregnant. This doesn’t seem like a good strategy in any situation, but especially in this relationship—with a lazy, lying, manipulative boyfriend—it seems like a terrible idea. The more we learn about Maggie and Gabe and how he treats her, the more I wish I were Maggie’s friend so I could shake some sense into her. This relationship—a textbook example of an emotionally abusive one—was doomed from the beginning, and Maggie should have recognized it from the start. At this point she’s just deluding herself. I’m curious to know what will happen with her, now that she and Gabe have broken up (for good, I hope?), although they were supposed to leave the next morning for a two-week vacation in Maine. Her pregnancy is an interesting twist; unlike Alice, she wanted children so badly that she was willing to take a huge gamble on her very unstable relationship. Do you think Maggie will get some clarity in Maine? Maybe she’ll be the one to break through Alice’s icy exterior and each will be able to help the other.
Ann Marie, Pat’s wife, has a secret, too: She has a crush on her married neighbor, Steve Brewer. While this secret seems a little less serious than the others, it has the potential to turn into something disastrous when the two couples go to Maine together. I kind of loved this twist in Ann Marie’s story—it felt very Desperate Housewives! And again, I liked how my views on Ann Marie based on other characters’ opinions changed as I was reading her chapters. You definitely get a better understanding of her and why she tries so hard to maintain a level of perfection…from her poor childhood to a criminal brother who’s disappeared for the last 20 years. Yet you see her desperate need for control and order (her Victorian dollhouse sounds beautiful yet somewhat frightening—her dream life, in miniature) and how condescending she can be. Do you think anything will happen with Steve when they’re together in Maine?
And lastly, Kathleen, who seems—oddly, considering she runs a worm-poop business with her boyfriend, Arlo—to be the sanest of the bunch (at least, so far). It seems that after hitting rock-bottom with her alcoholism she’s been able to turn her life around and start fresh...although she needs plenty of distance from her cold-hearted mother. I loved this moment in her chapter, when Arlo says “Around your family, you never act like yourself.” And Kathleen “feared that the opposite was true, that her real self was that dark, angry one she had shoved in a box years ago, the one that emerged only when she was home.” So true—I also feel like a completely different person around my family, like I revert back to a sullen 13-year-old when I’m around them. And maybe who I am now is just a façade of who I want to be. Do you feel like you’re the same person around your family? And which one do you think is more “you”?
I can’t believe all this has happened and we’re learned so much, and no one other than Alice is even in Maine yet! Plus, we have a lot more characters to meet—I don’t know if they’ll get their own chapters, though I hope they do—and lots of secrets to reveal. (Why does Alice feel responsible for Mary’s death? Ann Marie alludes to some trouble with her son Daniel—what’s the story behind that? How will everyone react when Alice reveals that she’s given away their summer home?) I can’t wait to jump into the next section and hopefully get some answers. And hopefully you’re finding this book as thought-provoking as I am: Leave your thoughts/rants/questions in the comments below. For next week, we’re reading up to page 322 (ending with “Alice,” before “Maggie,” first sentence: “Rhiannon left before seven the next morning,” for those of you on e-readers).
Maine:Through Page 322
Hello again, Bookies!
It seems that at the end of every third of the book there’s a major Alice revelation; last time, we found out about her drunk driving accident. In this last chapter, we finally learn the story behind the death of her sister, Mary. And now her lifelong guilt starts to make sense. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
In this next section of the book, we learn about Ann Marie’s real secret—the fact that her golden child, Little Daniel, has been fired from various jobs because he has an attitude/laziness problem. He also seems to have a problem with downloading porn on his work computer and “accidentally” charging it to the company’s expense account. Oops. For such a supposedly smart kid, this is really beyond idiotic. Ann Marie is also ashamed of her daughter Fiona, who is gay, and is terrified that the rest of the family will find out. The more I learn about Ann Marie and her close-mindedness, the more I dislike her. She would rather cover up the truth and lie to herself and everyone else rather than face reality, deal with issues, and admit that her life and her family aren’t perfect. In fact, her situation reminds me a little bit of Maggie’s—Maggie is also in denial about her horrible relationship with Gabe, though Maggie’s denial stems more from her desire to be loved and to create a family, since her own family was torn apart. Ann Marie wants to be envied and admired. We do learn that despite her patient, saintly façade the Kellehers aggravate her constantly—and, yes, I felt a little bad for her—but I still don’t like her! Are you also disliking Ann Marie more and more as you spend more time in her head?
I’m glad Maggie decided to go to Maine by herself (not that I doubted she would, from a plot standpoint). I love how we see the juxtaposition of Alice’s and Maggie’s perspective on the same events: Alice didn’t like Maggie’s other friends because they never spent time with her and treated her like she was running a B&B, while Maggie thought Alice didn’t want their company. Alice shuts down Maggie when she asks how she met Daniel; Maggie is hurt and confused because she thinks Alice doesn’t want to be close to her, while Alice is hiding the whole painful story about Mary’s death. Alice thinks Maggie wants stories of her life to use in her novel, but Maggie just wants to be close to her grandmother. It’s like Sullivan is dropping little reminders throughout the novel—don’t trust what anyone says or how they act; there’s always another side to the story, another perspective to consider.
It’s also interesting that Alice loves Gabe so much, considering what a loser he is—she clearly prefers men to women, and has a weakness for handsome, charming ones. Why do you think Alice opens up more to men than women? Do you think she responds so well to Gabe simply because he lavishes attention on her, or is it because she sees something of herself in him?
Foolishly, Maggie calls Gabe while she’s up in Maine—but when she realizes that he isn’t fazed by their breakup, she seems to finally come to her senses about what type of guy he really is and e-mails him a note informing him that she’s pregnant. What do you think Gabe’s reaction will be? Will he make an appearance in Maine to talk to Maggie? (Somehow, I think not.)
And then we return to Alice, whom I find the most fascinating out of the four women. Once again, we learn something awful that Alice has done: At Daniel’s funeral, she publicly accuses Kathleen of killing her father and wanting all of the family’s money. Why do you think Alice dislikes Kathleen the most out of her family? Is it jealousy—because Kathleen was Daniel’s favorite? Is it because Kathleen and Alice are so similar and Alice hates seeing her own negative qualities in someone else? Or because Kathleen, being the oldest, is able to remember her mother’s drunken behavior when they were children and Alice resents her for it?
We finally get to hear the story about Mary and learn that Alice and Daniel met on a blind date set up by her brothers. At the dance, we see Alice’s jealousy of Mary and her situation: expensive clothes, fancy friends, an about-to-propose boyfriend who adores her. Mary is poised to attain the glamorous, carefree life Alice herself had always wanted. Alice picks a fight with Mary and deliberately says things to hurt her. Although they both end up leaving the club, Mary goes back inside to get the gloves that Alice borrowed from her without asking, left behind, and then refused to retrieve. And, of course, that’s when the fire inside the club breaks out—and neither Mary nor her boyfriend, Henry, escapes. It’s a tragic, heartbreaking story, and now we understand why Alice has been scarred for life by it. It’s interesting that she ends up with Daniel as a result. Is he an escape from a lonely life with her parents? A punishment for her sister’s death? A way for her to become a different person so that she can forget her past? I feel so much sympathy for Alice at the end of this chapter—losing her sister, putting aside her artist dreams, not having her husband understand that she doesn’t want to be a mother. The scene at the artists’ party with Alice as an outsider watching the festivities, “with her swollen belly and her two children in bed down the road, waiting with their ears perked for her to return home” was such a sad one for me. In an earlier chapter, there was another great line: “She looked at her three children sitting there, staring and demanding more—more food from the icebox, more time, more love—as if they owned her.” You really feel how motherhood and domesticity has sucked the life out of her, taken away her passions and dreams, her soul. Unlike Ann Marie, I find myself becoming more sympathetic toward Alice the more I learn about her. It seems that she’s spent her whole life punishing herself for her sister’s death, but by extension, she ends up punishing the rest of the family, too.
It was hard for me to stop reading at this point, so I’m glad that I can finally move on and finish the rest of the book. As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts—leave your comments and questions below. For next Friday, we’ll be reading to the end. Here’s what I hope happens: I want Alice to crack and finally show some emotion and love; Ann Marie to break down and admit to her flaws; and Maggie to man up, ditch Gabe, and forge ahead with confidence. For Kathleen, I would love to see some sort of reconciliation with or understanding of her mother—even a very minor one. I guess we’ll find out soon enough!
Maine:Through the End
We’ve made it to the end. I have to say, the ending had some twists I wasn’t expecting, which is always a good thing. And I certainly didn’t finish the book disappointed, though I did find myself wanting more (also usually a good thing in a book).
We start the final section with Maggie in Maine, and we get an amusing little Thornbirds-esque moment when she mistakes Father Donnelly for a handsome handyman. (Now wouldn’t that have been a great unexpected twist?) Maggie starts to find peace in Maine with her grandmother and finally sends a letter to Kathleen letting her know that she’s pregnant. Ann Marie then shows up at the house, in a tizzy trying to get her perfect dream home ready for the dollhouse contest and to get her actual cottage ready for her dream man, Steve Brewer. After some initial tension, everyone seems to be getting along until Father Donnelly tells Ann Marie that Alice has given the house to St. Michael’s. And to add even more drama—surprise!—Kathleen shows up unexpectedly in Maine just a few hours later to try to convince Maggie to live with her and Arlo in California. Everything, it seems, is going to happen at once.
While I liked Kathleen in most of her previous chapters, I really started to dislike her here. Her meanness and pettiness really come out, especially when dealing with Ann Marie. My opinions of the two women flipped—I felt sorry for Ann Marie and saw how hard she was trying to make the best of the situation, while Kathleen was making nasty comments just out of spite. In fact, her behavior reminded me a lot of Alice’s, which makes a lot of sense. It does seem like Kathleen turns into a sarcastic teenager once she’s around her family.
Ann Marie is furious when she finds out that Alice has donated the house. Her perfect façade crumbles, and she can’t hide her anger and bitterness. Do you think she’s overreacting or does she have a right to be so angry? She and Pat clearly believed that Alice would leave them the property in her will, since they’ve been the ones who built the house, kept it up, and paid the taxes. Is it unfair of them to assume that the house would belong to them, or do they deserve it? While I certainly think they have some claim on the property, it’s true that it belongs to Alice and she can do with it as she wishes. And she never asked them to build the house or take care of it.
Ann Marie’s desperation to escape from the reality of her not-so-perfect life takes some unexpected turns; she invents a new fantasy life for herself as an interior designer when she meets Adam, a stranger in a bar. And in a cringe-worthy scene that I loved because of the soap-operaness of it, she drunkenly makes a pass at Steve Brewer on the Fourth of July. Did you feel sorry for her when he rejects her and she sees that Kathleen has witnessed the whole thing, or did you feel she got what she deserved? Her anger about losing the house has brought out a bitterness that seems to go deeper than the house itself—it’s as if all the nasty thoughts and feelings about Alice and the Kellehers she’s tried to suppress are bubbling up now that she’s been betrayed (in her opinion) by the family with whom she’s worked so hard to ingratiate herself.
In this scene we also witness a change of heart from Kathleen, who suddenly feels protective of her once-hated sister-in-law. Once she sees the shame and embarrassment on Ann Marie’s face, Kathleen realizes that all she wanted was to know “that Ann Marie herself knew she was not perfect.” Is this petty of Kathleen, or is she justified in wanting this? I have to admit, I also enjoyed seeing Ann Marie publicly humbled (though I don’t know what that says about me!). Did you get a similar satisfaction?
One thing we haven’t talked about yet, though it’s been a pretty dominant theme, is the role of religion in Alice’s life. When we first meet her, we learn she goes to Mass every day; she prays, has a strong relationship with her priest, and participates actively in church functions. But as we get to know her better, we learn what a cruel, cold woman she really is. By the end of the book, her faith is as strong as ever: She tells Father Donnelly, “If it wasn’t for the Church, I probably wouldn’t have made it,” and says she wants “to die in as close to a state of grace as I can.” But at the end, she appears to like the rabbits in her yard more than her own grandchildren! It’s difficult for me to reconcile these two parts of Alice; her religion stresses love, kindness, empathy, and generosity—basically, everything Father Donnelly embodies. Yet Alice never shows love and kindness to her own family. Is her faith just for show? Is Alice a hypocrite? Religion seems to be the only thing that brings her comfort or joy after her sister’s death, yet it’s also the thing that seems to be preventing her from forgiving herself and finding true happiness—nothing she can do for the Church, even donating her home, can lessen the guilt in her heart. She needs to find the forgiveness within herself.
By the end, we see that the only person in the book who hasn’t changed at all is Alice. She’s still coldhearted, refusing to acknowledge any emotions, shutting her family out. Alone once again in her house, she goes to church, “the only constant companion of Alice’s life, the only thing that made sense, always.” The pain of losing her sister, it seems, is far too deep to ever be healed—and as a result, she won’t let herself love her family members or accept their love to spare herself any further pain. Instead, she buries herself in the calming rituals of the Church. It’s sad to realize that for Alice, it’s just too late.
Thanks for reading along with me, Bookies, and adding all your comments to the discussion. Make sure to leave your thoughts on the final chapters below. And I have some exciting news—J. Courtney Sullivan, the author, will be answering your questions right here on RealSimple.com, so add any questions for her, too! Here are my questions:
1. What was your inspiration for the book? It almost seemed as if you started researching the Cocoanut Grove fire and got the idea to write a story about someone who survived it and how the tragedy affected her life. And then the rest of the characters and story grew out of that.
2. Which of the characters that you created did you like the least? Did you have a favorite character?
3. What’s your favorite spot in Maine?
J. Courtney Sullivan Talks About Maine
J. Courtney Sullivan has a new book, The Engagements, out in the coming weeks, but that did not stop her from spending time talking with us about her previous novel, Maine, including what she thinks happens to the main characters, her inspiration for the book, and the importance of eavesdropping. Up top of the Q&A, you’ll find a brief note to you from Courtney. Enjoy.
To start, I want to thank you all for reading the book and having such thoughtful and insightful questions. It’s really a thrill when characters you’ve created in the privacy of your own head go out into the world, and you get to hear what other people think of them. Your questions show a level of careful reading and analysis that is every novelist’s dream! So thanks for that. And now onto the answers.
From reader himmel: I think all the characters were well developed and the story great. My question for the author is: Do you plan to continue this story in another novel? Or are you on to something totally different?
I have a new novel called The Engagements coming out in June. It’s a story about four different marriages. The book takes place in various locations (upstate New York, Paris, Cambridge, Philadelphia) and time periods ranging from 1947 to today. It is in part about the diamond engagement ring tradition and how it came to be. When I started writing it, I said to myself that this book would have no Irish Catholic characters, as I had sort of gotten my fill of them with Maine. I had these four main characters I had gotten to know well, but I felt someone was missing. Then one day, while researching diamonds, I came across the story of a fascinating woman who wrote every De Beers diamond ad from the 1940s through the ’70s, including the famous line “A Diamond Is Forever.” She herself never married. Her name was Mary Frances Gerety. That’s right; a good Irish Catholic gal. I knew she was the missing link in this novel. So I had to break my own rule and include her.
I never say never, but I don’t see myself writing about the Kellehers again any time soon. I feel like I left each of them in a good place. If I ever did revisit them, my guess is that it would not be in a straight-up sequel, but rather in a more tangential way. Two authors I admire have done this incredibly well—Maile Meloy, with her connected novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, and Ellen Gilchrist, with a character named Rhoda who appears in many of her books.
From reader karingam: I really see Alice as a classic religious hypocrite. She certainly is not showing a Christian heart as she shares with us her feelings on the other family members; plus her decision to give the house away without discussing it with them shows such callousness and indifference! My question to Courtney is: Did you mean to expose that kind of religious hypocrisy? Clearly, those who pretend to be "religious" but do not live it give me the greatest "pause" where religion is concerned and, unfortunately, there are many like her in the real world.
I think at its best, religion should be experienced both internally and externally—a religious person ought to take comfort from her God, but also use her faith to propel herself into good acts and kindness. Unfortunately, Alice doesn’t really do much of the latter. She knows she hasn’t lived up to her own standards of Christian goodness, and giving the house away to the church is an odd sort of grand gesture that she hopes will make up for it.
I do think Alice is a bit of a religious hypocrite. But I also think the Church is where she can be her best self. Maine is a novel about the roles we play within a family—in the eyes of the Kellehers, Kathleen will always be a mess. But to people in the worm farming and AA communities, she’s something of a leader. And the same is true for Alice. Her kids see her as someone who is too old to be trusted alone, a mean drunk, a racist. But through her church, she prays each day, she visits the sick, she fights to keep her hometown parish alive. Her church community sees her as she wants to be seen. As both Alice and Kathleen show, sometimes it’s much easier to be graceful and generous to outsiders than to your own family.
From reader Helena10: I was really happy with Maggie at the end of the book although I am curious to know what happens at coffee with Gabe... Will she stay strong? As for questions for Sullivan I am always interested in the creative process and any insight would be great!
Don’t worry. Maggie stays strong! Gabe is history, I’m sure of it.
As for the creative process, well, I’ve been a reader and a writer ever since I can remember. As a kid, I wrote stories and poems and plays. I’ve also always been an eavesdropper. When I was very young, I’d slip under the table at big family dinners and just listen to what everyone was saying. Afterward, I’d try to make sense of what I’d heard by writing about it. I’m still this way now—I don’t slip under the table anymore, but I’m interested in conversations I overhear on the train or out to dinner. Just last night, I was in a restaurant beside a couple on the worst first date of all time. I had so much fun listening to the awkward rhythms of their conversation, and trying to figure out what was going on beneath the surface. By the time I got home, I had written five stories about these people in my head. That sort of curiosity about human behavior is the main reason I write. (I know it’s kind of rude, but I can’t help it. It’s research!)
From reader bestbetsy: Loved the book. I wouldn't want Alice as my mother, but she was quite a character. I'd love to have dinner with her occasionally just to hear her crazy comments. Does Sullivan have any thoughts of how her characters' lives would have continued?
I do sometimes think about the Kelleher women and what happened next. I see Maggie raising her child alone in Brooklyn—a tough, but not impossible, path. I’m sure she’d have help from Kathleen and Ann Marie (whether she wants it or not.) And maybe some magical cash infusion from Gabe’s father. I don’t see Gabe in the picture, really. Although as I type that, it makes me sad for the baby. Maybe Maggie’s brother, Chris, steps up and provides a male influence.
I think Kathleen and Arlo remain happy, and their company thrives. Perhaps worm poop will pay for Maggie’s baby to go to college. (By the way, I have a strong feeling that the baby is a girl—the next generation of Kelleher women begins!)
My hope for Ann Marie is that she and her husband will start a new chapter, and that she’ll be able to embrace that, rather than continuing to mourn her old life, as she does in the book. I think the trip to London will get them to start traveling more. Sadly, I don’t think she wins the dollhouse competition. I see her getting second runner-up.
As for Alice, Maggie from Real Simple hit the nail on the head in her last post about the book: Alice is the only one who doesn’t and won’t change. She will still be sitting on that front porch, smoking, drinking, and judging everyone for as long as she lives.
From reader dconnolly: If I could ask Sullivan only one question, I would ask about the ending … for anything Sullivan is willing to tell us about it! If I could ask a second question, I would ask if Sullivan really wrote both this book, and Commencement, on the weekends when she already had another full time job. Seriously, how does one do that …and sustain the energy, drive and commitment to keep on going… with absolutely brilliant results?
Well, first of all, thank you! You just made my day. It’s true that I wrote Commencement and the first half of Maine while working full time as a researcher at the New York Times and freelancing for the paper and various magazines. Looking back now, it does seem kind of crazy, but I think the key is that when we really want something, we’ll make the time. I’m in awe of people who run marathons. In theory, I’d love to be one of them, but I just don’t have the discipline (or the athletic ability) to go the distance. I’m more the type who puts the running shoes on, then asks, “Was that a drop of rain?” before deciding to sit on the couch with a book instead.
It helps that writing fiction has always been my greatest joy. As a kid, I used to write short stories for fun. So working on these novels never felt like work.
As for the ending! I have gotten at least five emails a week asking about it since Maine was released two years ago. [SPOILER ALERT] I intentionally left it vague, but I know now that there are some readers who aren't satisfied with that sort of conclusion. Does Alice die and get called by God or Daniel, or does she live and get called by the priest? In my opinion, it's the latter, but ultimately it doesn't really matter because Alice is not going to change one bit, no matter how much longer she lives. She is fully formed, incapable of any meaningful sort of personal growth, and therefore, done with her life in the only way that's truly meaningful. (Cheery, I know.)
From deputy editor Maggie Shi:
What was your inspiration for the book? It almost seemed as if you started researching the Cocoanut Grove fire and got the idea to write a story about someone who survived it and how the tragedy affected her life. And then the rest of the characters and story grew out of that.
When I finished writing my first novel, Commencement, which is about a group of college friends, I knew that the next thing I’d write would be about women of different generations. Commencement is largely concerned with this idea that the main characters (who graduate from college in 2002) are part of the first generation of women in America to have every choice available to them—their struggle lies in knowing which choices to make. I wanted to write about the women who came before them, and the idea that the moment a woman is born determines so much about who she is expected and allowed to become.
It made sense for these women to be from one family because I also wanted to explore how certain things—like alcoholism, religion, resentments, and secrets—move from one generation to the next.
I grew up hearing stories about the Cocoanut Grove because my great-grandfather was a Boston firefighter at the time, and he was a first responder at the scene. One of his daughters was supposed to be there that night, but had decided at the last moment not to go. He was searching for her for hours, not realizing that she was safe at home, and despite the good outcome of their story, the experience haunted him for life. As my grandmother and great-aunts told it, there was no person in Boston who didn't know someone who was there that night. One of my great-aunts was a secretary in an office, and she said that on the Monday morning following the fire, half of the men who worked there (and their wives) were gone.
Which of the characters that you created did you like the least? Did you have a favorite character?
When I started writing the book, Ann Marie was my least favorite character. She was almost a caricature. Everyone knows an Ann Marie—that annoying woman with the perfect house, the perfect kids, the perfect car. But the more I wrote of her, the more I realized how hard she was working to project that sense of perfection, when in fact what was happening beneath the surface was a very different matter. And so, by the end of the writing process, she became the character I cared about most.
What’s your favorite spot in Maine?
My fiancé likes to say that there’s no such thing as a bad piece of pizza. I think the same can be said for the various parts of Maine. It’s such a beautiful state, and such a large one compared to the rest of New England that I’m still discovering lots of places. But my favorite spot is the one I know best—Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. (There’s a scene in the book where Maggie, Alice, and the priest go there.) Perkins Cove used to be a sleepy village full of lobstermen’s huts, and later there was an artists’ colony there. Today there are shops and restaurants and tour boats, but the history of the place still lives on. My favorite restaurant in the Cove is Barnacle Billy’s. If you ever go, you have to try the rum punch and then take a walk along the gorgeous Marginal Way. It’s heaven!
From deputy editor Maura Fritz: The sort of devout Catholicism that Alice practices has often been explored in novels/plays/film. Why is that?
There are a lot of different kinds of Catholicism. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, in a town with more people of Irish Catholic descent than any other town in America. Irish Catholicism is the only one I can speak to firsthand, and I think the abundance of related fiction has a few explanations. First, Irish people are storytellers. In just my family alone, a story gets told, and then told again, and again and again after that, and with each telling, sometimes over the course of many years, the story gets polished and embellished and improved. It’s not unlike the many drafts of a novel that a writer works through. We are bred to tell stories.
Also (and of course this is a wild generalization) in my experience anyway, Irish people don’t tend to be big over-sharers. Secrets abound. When I was writing Maine, I asked a group of childhood friends who had grown up in Irish Catholic families what little things most defined the experience for them—someone said the Irish step-dancing classes we were all made to endure. Someone else mentioned Waterford crystal. But one friend said, “We all have that one weird uncle who disappeared and no one ever spoke of him again.”
The Catholic Church is also a place of stories and secrets. You grow up listening to sermons and Gospels every Sunday. You learn the rules of the church very young, and know that the consequences for breaking them are absolutely terrifying. So all of this percolates, and if one has an inclination to tell the tale, it makes for good material.