Ever since being stunned by the quiet elegance of Alice Munro’s writing, I have greatly admired what I call quiet writers—quiet in the sense that there is very little overt drama in their stories, no rich-famous people or earth-shattering events. Instead, the focus is on ordinary people who, when looked at carefully and with compassion, have quite extraordinary inner lives.
In recent years Munro has been joined (or I have joined her) with other writers who write about ordinary people who become quite extraordinary when seen through the lens of a great story-teller. Elizabeth Strout is one such writer, and Alice McDermott another. Today I’m going to talk about McDermott’s newest novel, Someone. She could as well have titled it Anyone since she is so intent on describing the life of a woman others see as plain and quite uninteresting.
Like all of McDermott’s novels, this is a story of Irish-American families living in east coast cities. We meet seven year old Marie, the lead character in this novel, sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn observing carefully, as she always does, the bustle of life going on around her. Describing herself, Marie says, “At seven, I was a shy child, and comical-looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eye, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth—a little girl cartoon.” From this beginning, the short novel hopscotches between descriptions of her early life as an awkward child to her old age senility, the agonizing birth of her first child, the early death of her much loved father, her loyal and devoted brother’s brief stint as a priest and the constancy of his love for Marie throughout their lives. The actual chronology of her life much less important than the stitched together frames McDermott describes for us.
In her first foray into romance, Marie meets a man who breaks off with her as soon as he finds a woman more attractive and with better economic prospects. He says he is doing it to give his future children the best chance he can, “It’s the best-looking people that have the best chances.” Marie is not really surprised by his defection, but it is devastating nonetheless.
I sat on the edge of the bed. I wanted to take my glasses off, fling them across the room. To tear the new hat from my head and fling it, too. Put my hands to my scalp and peel off the homely face. Unbutton the dress, unbuckle the belt, remove the frail slip. I wanted to reach behind my neck and unhook the flesh from the bone, open it along the zipper of spine, step out of my skin and fling it to the floor. Back shoulder stomach and breast. Trample it. Raise a fist to God for how He had shaped me in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.
As their Brooklyn neighborhood decays and most who can flee to the suburbs, Marie remains to care for her mother who fears a move, and finally fears even to leave her apartment in their battered brownstone. She and her brother lean on one another as they care for their widowed mother, and the quiet love they share is touchingly described, though always understated. If there is a love-angle in this novel, it is the relationship between brother and sister.
Marie is all in all a dutiful child, her teenage rebellion mild compared to most; it takes the form of refusing her mother’s attempts to teach her how to cook. “Well, I don’t want to learn.” I said. “Once you learn to do it, you’ll be expected to do it,” and was amazed at the way my own words clarified for me what had been, until then, only a vague impulse to refuse. They looked at me over their knees, this gaggle of girls; a lifetime of hours in the kitchen bearing down on us all.”
McDermott has an incredible talent with words, moving her readers quickly from the mundane (a sight or smell) to a rich memory and a complex life. Alice Munro is asked by a journalist why she writes stories; she replies that she wants to move people—that she wants her readers to be different people after finishing one of her stories. I am certainly moved my McDermott’s stories, and I would add that I feel I am a different person after reading one of her novels. Events in this novel (and in all of her stories) are often sad, as true to life stories often are, but I have to say I feel uplifted by her stories. I feel that I have been changed for the better by having read her.
Rather than attempting to further describe her writing, let me end with a quote. Marie and Gabe, her brother, decide to walk together after Marie’s hurtful rejection by her boyfriend, much as her father had taken long walks with her to assuage some childhood grief.
The air was a wall. The heat was a reminder of what I had glimpsed when my father was dying, but had, without plan or even intention, managed to forget: that the ordinary days were a veil, a swath of thin cloth that distorted the eye. Brushed aside, in moments such as these, all that was brittle and terrible and unchanging was made clear. My father would not return to earth, my eyes would not heal. I would never step out of my skin or marry Walter Hartnett in the pretty church. And since this was true for me, it was true, in its own way, for everyone. My brother and I greeted the people we knew walking by, neighborhood women, shopkeepers in doorways trying to catch a breeze. Each one of them, it seemed to me now that the veil was briefly parted, hollow-eyed with disappointment or failure or some solitary grief.