Thursday, March 3, 2011

After This, by Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott's territory is Irish-American family life on Long Island, and that is the territory that After This explores. The book opens with the details of a day in the life of Mary, a 30-year-old office worker who is worried that her prospects for marriage seem so bleak. But those prospects are about to change, as she meets her future husband, World War II veteran John Keane, at the Schrafft's lunch counter.

McDermott then jumps ahead to the day on which the Keanes' first child is conceived. From there, we leap to a day at the beach with their three children, Mary heavily pregnant with the fourth and John having premonitions of his death. The pattern continues, as McDermott skips months and years and changes narrators--both of the Keanes, their four children (Jacob, Michael, Annie, and Clare) get their moments in the spotlight, as do Pauline, Mary's gossipy and virginal work colleague who becomes a virtual family member, and other characters who cross the Keans' path. Sometimes the vignettes deal directly with a major family event, such as Clare's home birth, assisted by a neighbor who works as a nurse in a mental hospital; others glance off those events, such as Jacob's death in Vietnam.

McDermott has said that the book is about the "pain and sweetness of life," but the vignettes that comprise the book contain far more pain than sweetness: John wakes up one morning with a sore leg and directs his son to construct a traction device rather than going to the doctor. (In describing his response to this sudden ailment, McDermott tosses in, almost as an aside, that he "will die alone"; although, in fact, he won't die for many years, this kind of foreshadowing is a tool McDermott uses quite often.) Annie accompanies her friend to an abortion clinic and breaks down because the book she is reading--A Farewell to Arms--is so sad. Pauline falls off a bus and ends up in a mental hospital; when released, she comes to live with the Keanes "for a few weeks"--and never leaves. Clare becomes pregnant as a teenager.

McDermott writes beautifully, and the characters and the Keanes' marriage are well-drawn. I am not, however, a fan of the way she has constructed the novel as a series of vignettes in the lives of the characters. Some of the vignettes are lovely--the story of Mary and Annie waiting in line at the World's Fair to see the Pieta is my favorite--and together they do create a kaleidoscopic view of the Keane family's life. Despite a love of kaleidoscopes, however, I prefer another form for a novel.

Favorite passages:
In her laugh was every confidence Mary had ever shared with Pauline about her husband's failings, every unguarded criticism, every angry, impromptu, frustrated critique of his personality, his manners, his sometimes morbid, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes impatient ways. a repository, Pauline and her laugh, for every moment in their marriage when Mary Keane had not loved her husband, when love itself had seemed a misapprehension, a delusion (a stranger standing outside of Schrafft's transformed into an answered prayer), and marriage--which Pauline had had sense enough to spurn--simply an awkward pact with a stranger, any stranger, John or George, Tom, Dick, or Harry.

Her silence was a remarkable concoction: hurt, impatience, recrimination, blood-red anger, fear, worry--the kind of concoction only a long marriage can brew.

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