Thursday, August 8, 2013

Maine - J. Courtney Sullivan

As summer comes to a close (when you work at a school mid-August equals fall), I thought I should slip in a so-called beach read.  This book, though advertised as such (just look at that cover!), floats the line between the chick-lit-beach-reads released en masse at the start of every summer and the darker, deeper books of the cold months.

I read Sullivan's inaugural novel Commencement this spring.  At the time, I deemed it chick lit and chastised myself for enjoying it so much.  Upon reading Sullivan's sophomore work, I see a potential need to reclassify.  

I assume the publishers of J. Courtney Sullivan's books are purposefully marketing her as a women's author.  One look at her book covers is all it takes to know that.  Yes, her books are about women, but does that mean they should be relegated to women's eyes only?  Certainly women will connect with them better, but they have value for any reader.  

While Commencement focused on the friendships of four women in college and beyond, Maine tackles familial relationships.  Alice, the matriarch, her daughter Kathleen, her daughter-in-law Ann Marie, and her granddaughter Maggie all end up at the family summer home in Maine.  The women each face internal battles and external conflicts.  

Alice has carried guilt over her sister's premature death for decades and, as a result, has never allowed her family to get close to her.  Kathleen is a recovering alcoholic and divorcee who holds her mother in contempt for years of hurt and thoughtless comments.  Ann Marie, while appearing to be a June Cleaver type outwardly, fantasizes about a family friend and, though its never stated outright, has a shopping addiction, control issues, and increasing difficulty managing her alcohol intake.  Maggie, meanwhile, has searched for male affection since her parents divorce and grandfather's death; when we meet her, she has gotten herself pregnant by a deadbeat boyfriend and now faces a life as a single mother.  As with Commencement, Sullivan is obviously not interested in shying away from tough issues. 

These characters are true to life in the best way possible.  Sullivan navigates their disagreements perfectly, causing the reader to be rooting for all parties simultaneously.  She allows her characters growth and deep thought.  They are well rounded rather than their one-dimensional counterparts in mainstream chick lit.  Sullivan spends time developing all sides of them: their histories, their personalities, their little quirks, their emotions, their spirituality - nothing is left unexplored.  They are not particularly pleasant women; we are shown their deepest flaws clearly.  Yet, it is just those imperfections that make them real.  

It is this depth that I think catapults Sullivan out of chick lit and into a world of literature where she should be taken more seriously.  Her publishers need to start marketing her to a more reflective audience - although this would undoubtedly bring in far less money for their own pockets.  They could at least start with the cover.  There are plenty of studies and arguments out there advocating for the differences in covers between books markets to women and those marketed to men or neutral audiences.

Any one who has family or who has married into family can relate to the struggles of these four women.  While most of us are not dealing with dysfunction at the level, we like to think we are at times.  Who hasn't found herself wondering just how she ended up with her particular family?  And, yet, in the end, family represents an unbreakable bond.  Sullivan shows that also.

As with Commencement, I found the ending of Maine to be a smidge too neat.  The ends get neatly wrapped up and the women seem content and happy for the first time in years.  This is great in theory, but it seems to fly in the face of the rest of the novel.  When passions have run so high, resolution should require a bit more work.

I enjoyed Maine, just as I did its predecessor, though with less guilt this time.  I see now that Sullivan's depth was not a fluke in her first book.  Her stories are rich and deep.  They deserve to be marketed as more than women's books.  In preparing this post, I was a bit surprised to see so much hate on Goodreads.  While some valid points are made there, I tend to disagree.  This book is worth reading.

Pages: 388
Date Completed: July 26, 2013

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