If you are looking for a book to remind you of the pleasures of great writing, look no further than Someone: A Novel by Alice McDermott.
There are books that announce themselves with dramatic fanfare. From the opening pages the reader is drawn into life-changing events and the characters' reactions to those events. These books are hard to put down and keep us on the edge of our seat. Other books present themselves more quietly and draw us into the world of an ordinary life, slowly revealing ideas and themes. They gently show how the characters deal with circumstances and events. Rather than being focused on big plots and action- packed stories, they tell a tale of a human life. In fact, they tell what it feels like to be human. In this vein of literature, I can think of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Barbara Pym. After reading the new and incandescent novel "Someone," I would add Alice McDermott to that group.
The "story of an unremarkable woman's unforgettable life" is how the publisher describes Alice McDermott's novel on the dust jacket. And it is a perfect description. Like the characters in a Barbara Pym book, the central character and narrator Marie is not someone you would necessarily notice walking on the street. Her looks are plain, she wears thick glasses and her clothes are unremarkable. Her weak vision is a problem she will deal with her entire life. The events are the typical events of a woman's life but, as they are illuminated by McDermott's beautiful prose, they demonstrate that no life is ordinary and that everyone is "someone." Marie's story is compelling for its realness. I read this book in a couple of days and was in awe of the power and emotional resonance of this quiet tale. Anyone who admires good writing will be impressed by this book. So much brilliance is packed into seemingly ordinary language. That Alice McDermott does so much with such economy seems miraculous.
The book begins in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn where Marie lives during the time period between the world wars. She tells the story of her life, from sitting on a stoop at age seven waiting for her father to come out of the subway to sitting in a care facility at the end of her life. There is nothing linear about this tale; it is told in an episodic and impressionistic manner, like a slide show, and in that respect feels like real memory. Marie is a born noticer with weak eyes, a theme that is repeated throughout the book. It is the idea of the blind seer. These kinds of mythological and Biblical themes run throughout the book in such a subtle way that we notice them almost as an afterthought. But when we do, they stay with us.
Marie's Irish Catholic family includes her immigrant parents: a handsome and alcoholic father and a strong and independent mother. She has one sibling: her beloved and delicate brother Gabe who enters the priesthood. His story is perhaps the most poignant in the book. The priesthood doesn't work out for him and he struggles with identity and emotional issues. One scene in particular depicts his pain and sorrow in the most haunting imagery.
Marie takes us through her childhood and early encounter with death (her best friend's mother), her first romantic experience and heartbreak, her job as a funeral director's "consoling angel" where she meets her husband, her happy marriage, the birth of her first child which almost kills her, and her later years when she is almost blind and living in a care facility. I loved the stories that capture Marie's stubbornness and strength (her best qualities), such as when she refused to learn how to cook from her mother and purposefully ruined the bread she was asked to bake for the family. We later learn that the young Marie had worried that if she learned how to cook her mother would die, just as her best friend's mother did.
I loved this book. If you don't own it, please go out right now and pick up a copy. I promise that when you put it down you will realize that you have had the pleasure of meeting "someone" worth knowing and whose life has much to teach us.