Someone: A Novel
A fully realized portrait of one woman's life in all its complexity, by the National Book Award-winning author
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Reviewed by Julia MacDonnell for www.AuthorExpousre.com
SOMEONE (October 2014), Alice McDermott’s latest novel, just out in paperback, is as luminous as a votive candle, a small flame casting enchanted light into the shadowy reaches of a cathedral.
The cathedral in SOMEONE happens to be Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s, a fictional but utterly convincing neighborhood of Irish Catholic immigrants, devout and ambitious, convinced they've found the promised land of prosperity and security in their brownstone apartments; their proximity to Catholic parishes and each other; to public transportation and good jobs in Manhattan.
This short, lovely page-turner encompasses the life, from early childhood to old age, of Marie Commeford. It opens with the severely myopic Marie, at seven, sitting on her front stoop, observing the ebb and flow of neighborhood life where the enduring entertainment, beyond religious practice, is pondering the failures and successes of one another’s lives. She watches her neighbor Pegeen rush into their building. “Pegeen pulled open the door and the thin image in the glass shuddered like a flame…” (6). Thus Marie, “a shy child, a little girl cartoon, my heart pinned to my father’s sleeve,” (7) reveals herself to be a visionary observer of the daily life surrounding her.
Marie, intelligent and curious, but suffering from impaired vision and chagrined by her thick ugly eyeglasses, is coddled by her family’s love, and tethered close to home by her Catholicism. Her parents call her “the little pagan” in sharp contrast to her saintly brother Gabriel, a golden child whose apparent vocation becomes a fulcrum around which the family’s early life spins. Her mother tries to teach her, with limited success, the womanly arts of cooking and housekeeping. Eventually, through a family friend, Marie finds work as a hostess at a funeral home, where she acts as a kind of guardian angel for the bereaved.
Marie’s mother recalls Ireland as a place with “a burned taste in the air…a taste of wet ashes and doused fire” (13), one that could “make you believe you live in the aftermath of a nearby sorrow” (13). Her parents believe they've escaped but Marie, in her roles as daughter, sister, wife and mother, remains immersed, throughout her life, in all of the inescapable nearby sorrows: sudden deaths, long lingering illnesses, failed loves, a failed vocation. But she is also, just as often, surprised by love, overtaken by joy.
McDermott has stated that she wanted to tell, in SOMEONE, the life story of an unremarkable woman. But through the quiet elegance of her prose, Marie’s gift as a transcendent witness and narrator is immediately apparent. McDermott, whose novel CHARMING BILLY won a National Book Award, and whose other novels have been finalists for such major prizes as the Pulitzer Prize, eschews the typical conflict-crisis-resolution narrative structure in favor of an intricate collection of memories, moving back and forth through time. Events are connected not by chronology but by Marie’s felt experience: from that stoop as an innocent child of seven, to her collapse, in the next chapter, during her first pregnancy, while ordering a sandwich at a nearby deli. The connection: Pegeen’s assertion in the earlier scene, “Someone nice always helps me up” (5).
Every sentence flickers with meaning. Woven together, they offer an intricate tapestry of an ordinary life shot through with love and loss, joy and sorrow; surprise and delight on every page. SOMEONE may be an elegy to a lost world, but it is also a profound and deeply moving meditation on one woman’s richly experienced life.