Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

3.5/5 stars

An old boss of mine, who was a fellow only child, said all only children have two universal traits:

  1. We talk to ourselves.
  2. We live for any form of media about huge, messed-up families.

I’ve tested this theory on other only children, and so far, this seems to be pretty accurate–I’m not one to contest it. Maine is a sprawling novel of a deeply flawed family across generational and cultural divides–one that is satisfying and rich, whether you have siblings or not.

The titular state is represented by the Kelleher family’s summer home on the beach, which the family splits among the warring New England siblings month by month. Three generations of women are traced through the narrative–the headstrong matriarch Alice, her maverick daughter Kathleen who moved to California after her divorce, Anne Marie who married into the family and is determined to keep up appearances, and Kathleen’s daughter Maggie who is living in New York and just found out she’s pregnant by her dud of a boyfriend.

So there’s a lot going on here, and for the most part, Sullivan handles it pretty well, crafting a story of a family divided by generation gaps and Catholic guilt, tied together with the summer house in Maine and what it represents. The book strikes a nice balance between plot-driven and character-driven, a read that feels both beachy and mature at the same time–the perfect last-gasp-of-summer book. Alice’s storyline is probably my favourite, as a woman who must reconcile her present with her past and come to terms with how sexism shaped her world.

Some of the plotlines are stronger than others, and I think the book could have benefitted from three points of view rather than four–Anne Marie’s perspective is mostly useless, to be honest, and I was kind of grateful when her chapters were over. Some plot points weren’t tied up by the end of the novel, which can work in literary fiction, but as a commercial family drama, it feels weaker here. But if you’re looking for an enjoyable dose of family drama somewhere in between Succession and Shameless, this might be just the ticket.


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