10/10/2015. BOOK REVIEW—SOMEONE BY ALICE McDERMOTT
Alice McDermott has written several highly acclaimed novels, including one that won the National Book Award and three others that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She also teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which is only about 20 miles up the road from where I live. Despite her obvious writing skill and her physical proximity, I had never read one of her novels until now. To introduce myself to her work, I chose her most recent novel, Someone, and I don’t regret my choice. Someone took me into the mind of a sensitive, yet strong, woman named Marie Commeford, who searches throughout her life to understand the line between joy and sorrow, a deep but narrow crevasse that seems to open and close at will.
McDermott first shows us Marie as a seven-year-old girl, an odd child, shy yet curious, with an appearance that her older self recalls as comical—“a round flat face and black slits for eyes, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth.” This quiet child with weak vision watches her Brooklyn, New York, pre-World War II world from her front stoop and soon notices how life’s demands and yearnings for happiness can sweep away or “close up over” (a phrase McDermott uses a lot) sadness. In her young life, Marie witnesses first-hand three great sadnesses—the accidental death of a neighbor, a bride’s shock in learning that her groom is actually a woman, and the death of her best friend’s mother.
Marie fakes a stomach ache to avoid attending her friend’s mother’s wake because she’s afraid her friend, Gertie, will suddenly look like all the neglected motherless children at her school. To Marie’s surprise, Gertie is her old self at the funeral, and at Gertie’s home after the funeral the sounds and smells are the same as they have always been. At that moment, Marie says, “I believed only that the bright, bustling world had simply closed itself up over Mrs. Hanson’s disappearance, and that this, then, was the way of all sorrow . . . closed up, forgotten, vanished in the wink of an eye.”
Marie’s first personal experiences with sorrow come with the death of her father and with the betrayal of her first true love. This time she sees that the cover-up is insubstantial, that joy is the weaker circumstance. When her boyfriend tells her he is going to marry someone else, she sinks into a morass of misery and self-loathing. She remembers what she learned when her father died, but managed to forget: “that the ordinary days were a veil, a swath of thin cloth that distorted the eye. Brushed aside, in moments such as these, all that was brittle and terrible and unchanging was made clear. . . . And since this was true for me, it was true, in its own way, for everyone.”
And yet, as her life goes on, Marie sees sadness buried again and again. More deaths, both locally and in the second World War. And then there are the moments of joy that she learns can be fleeting as well. “The ordinary, rushing world going on, closing up over happiness as readily as it moved to heal sorrow.”
Throughout the story, Someone is as quiet and curious as Marie. The novel explores the expected, the unexpected, the uncontrollable mixing of the two—but it never calls on the highly dramatic or the sensational to tell its tale. McDermott recognizes that the events of our lives are dramatic in their own right. With touching first-person narration, she puts us inside Marie’s skin, the skin Marie wants to peel off and step out of when her boyfriend leaves. With Marie, the personal becomes the universal. We recognize the confusion of what is real, what is the true state of our existence. How much we don’t know. And in the midst of our confusion, McDermott makes us see there is always hope.
No doubt McDermott is a gifted writer. Her ideas, language, and story put her in the same rarefied field as Marilynne Robinson. I see now I need to start back at the beginning of her oeuvre and find out what I’ve missed.