Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Someone:a Novel by Alice McDermott

Brooklyn is in my blood. Yes, I was born there, but shortly thereafter my parents moved to the suburbs. Especially on my 100% Irish Catholic mother's side, our family has a long history there. So it was natural I would reach for Someone by Alice McDermott. Within a few pages, I knew not only that this was a book I would enjoy, but also that I would want to read it more than once. The book felt near-sacramental. Someone seemed to recreate my mother's milieu during the World War II years. Every detail of neighborhood life rings true and thus I was swept away into that time and place. Both Mom and I were big fans of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and Someone bears comparison to that beloved classic.

Marie Commeford, Brooklyn stoop-sitter, is unprepossessing young girl who often lacks confidence. In many ways, she balks at growing up. She does not want to learn how to bake the Irish soda bread her mother has always made on Saturday mornings (a much-loved and often-baked bread in our house too). When Marie graduates from high school, she rules out working in Manhattan. She is a Brooklyn girl through and through. Of all things, she ends up working in a local funeral home, where she matures into the role of comforting angel for the bereaved. Her brother, Gabe, becomes a priest, though after his first year, he backs out of the profession. Marie's loving but alcoholic father dies young, and her mother stays on in their longtime apartment while the old neighborhood crumbles apart around her.

Marie has her heart broken at the age of seventeen. "Who's going to love me?" she asks her brother. Herein lies the book's title. "Someone," her brother answers, such a simple but profound reply. And without giving too much away, yes, Marie does find a man who very much loves her. It takes awhile.... The book is not a straightforward chronologically, an arrangement I sometimes find jarring, but not in McDermott's sure hands. Very impressionistic and yet also realistically detailed, the effect is rather like opening a jumbled box of personal treasures. In sorting through them, I felt very much inside of Marie's roving memory, looking back through her life. There are times for all of us when yesterday seems close at hand and of course other times when the reverse is true. This is a slim novel, rich in both the sacred and profane.

Many of the reviews I skimmed before reading this book made much of the fact that Marie is very ordinary. I take some umbrage with that. There are time Marie shines. There are times she fails. She is an Everywoman for me, wonderfully familiar. She loves, loses love, loves again and again, especially when her children are born. And all of this calls to mind a Raymond Carver poem, one which is inscribed on his tombstone in Port Angeles, Washington:

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.