Someone by Alice McDermott

9780374281090_p0_v4_s260x420With a calm insistence, Alice McDermott penetrates the everyday life of an ordinary woman, and quietly connects her struggles and successes to our own in her novel Someone.  As McDermott unravels Marie’s life in Brooklyn with her parents and brother, the narrative follows a steady timeline, yet jumps to the future and back in a stream of life changing incidents that seem inconsequential until McDermott brings them all together in a beautiful mosaic.

The narrative can be disconcerting and hard to follow, at first.  Marie is telling the story as an old woman, but this is not immediately apparent.  Each chapter begins another incident in Marie’s life – not always in chronological order – the seven year old describing a funeral is followed by a pregnant Marie fainting in a deli, then her grown daughter taking her for cataract surgery, followed by the chapter flipping back to describe her first meeting with her husband.  At one point, I stopped to begin the book again, feeling lost and realizing I had missed some significance in the first reading – until I grasped the fragments of the examined life that McDermott was laying out.  As the narrator, Marie is a keen observer of life – from the opening when, as a seven-year old she notices Pegeen’s ripped stockings before she falls down the stairs, to admiring her sensitive brother’s quiet unease, long before he grows up to leave the priesthood.

McDermott offers joy and sympathy in this slim book, with insights into an ordinary life that is unique,  yet offers some comfort in the familiar.  Nothing remarkable happens to Marie, yet her life resonated with me, and I looked forward to each episode as McDermott quietly told her story.

Related Post: National Book Critics Circle Award

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The Lifeboat

What does it mean to be a survivor?

In Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat, the cruise ship Empress Alexandra sinks not long after the fatal Titanic and before the sinking of the Lusitania. The prologue eliminates the stress of wondering whether the main character, Grace Winter, survives; in the first few pages, she is in a courtroom, on trial for murder on the high seas.

As Grace records her “recollections” in a diary for her attorneys, she reveals her status as a woman in the early 1900s as well as her moral core. With her father’s death and subsequent loss of their fortune, the future looks grim for Grace. Her sister, Miranda, with no marriage prospects, takes a job as a governess, but Grace plots her own future with Henry, a wealthy banker – no matter that he is engaged to be married in a month. After she contrives to meet him, he falls in love with her, forsakes his fiancée, and books passage to Europe – where they can be secretly wed, without the disapproval of his mother. World War I is about to begin, and they book passage almost immediately to return to New York – but the ship sinks.

Henry bribes a crewman to take Grace onto the last lifeboat – and the story begins with Grace recounting the 21 days that she drifted on the ocean with a boat full of passengers.

Do you remember the writing prompt that had you choose who to save in the lifeboat? One version of the overpopulated boat has a medic who is unconscious, a little girl who has a disability, an old man who is on the brink of a major scientific discovery, an award-winning author, a crewman from the sunken ship, and a wealthy entrepreneur noted for his philanthropy. You must throw one overboard. The obvious choice might be the writer, unless you are one.

Although 40 passengers are in Rogan’s Lifeboat, she focuses the story around a small cluster, including a deacon of the church, a mother with a small child, an obstreporous Unsinkable Molly, a blustery colonel, three non-English speaking Italian women, a suspicious but experienced sailor, and Grace. Rogan details the physical horrors of their trial on the unrelenting sea, but their interactions, inner thoughts, alliances, and conspiracies may be more harrowing.

The Lifeboat is a riveting tale with a core ethical dilemma: what should you do to save yourself? Whether or not you get the symbolism and metaphors, the story is not what you expect.

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

British bookcover

How many books do you buy, shelve, and forget about? When I’d bought Rosamund Lupton’s Afterwards in Heathrow Airport in December, I was so excited to get a book four months before it would be published in the United States. Her first book – Sister – had me locked into reading in one night. But I got distracted, and now with the hardback available in American bookstores, I am finally opening the British paperback, months later – using my sales receipt from Heathrow as a bookmark.

American bookcover

As I read, I noticed the British flavor in the language – a character described as a jolly-hockey-sticks Sloane in FUN shirts (long sleeves a different pattern to the rest); reference to “a spot-on present”; and, of course “Mum” instead of Mom. I wondered if an editor changed words for the American publication as for the cover, which was eerily different.

The device Lupton uses to tell the story reminded me of the movie, “Just Like Heaven,” with Reese Witherspoon’s character flitting about uncovering clues, while her body lay comatose in the hospital. Lupton uses two roving spirits to uncover clues to the mystery of who set the lethal fire to the schoolhouse – Grace, the literate Cambridge educated part-time news reporter, and her daughter Jenni, a creative seventeen year old who probably will not pass the entrance exams.

On sports day, when the children, including Grace’s son, eight year old Adam, are out on the field, an arsonist burns down the school.  Grace tries to rescue her daughter, who is working as the school nurse for the day, but they both are badly hurt and lie comatose in the hospital.  Their spirits, however, reconnect outside their bodies, roaming the halls, listening to doctors and family discuss their fate, and following possible murderers around the halls and into the neighborhood.  Although the premise is far-fetched, the conversations between mother and daughter are as normal as if they were alive, as they become a detective team to solve the whodunit.

An easy read, with enough suspense to keep the plot moving, Afterwards has as many family relationship issues as mystery, but Lupton is expert at throwing red herrings, and the culprit is not obvious until the end of the story.  The end is thrilling but be sure to have some tissues handy.

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