Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Each of Us Has One Good Novel in Us; or Life Is Never Quiet on the Inside

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That novel is the story of your life – from childhood’s awakenings, miseries, and joys, through the muddle in the middle, to the moment you breathe your last.  Every life has the deepest, truest, most fundamental requirement of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

9780374281090_p0_v4_s114x166One kind of novel takes that raw framework and hangs a long life on it for us to see and consider.  The best example I’ve found lately – a beautiful and compelling read – is Alice McDermott’s Someone.  In it, we follow the life of Marie Commeford, who grows up Irish Catholic in Brooklyn between the wars.  As a child, she is a “bold piece” (her mother’s words), but lives in the shadow of her talented older brother Gabe, eventually a failed priest.  Marie works in a funeral parlor until the birth of the first of her four children.  The children grow up; her husband dies; she ends her days well cared for in a nursing home. I  am giving nothing away in this summary.  From the beginning, the book moves forward and backward in time, so that you have a sense of her life’s course very early.

Why in the world read this book, when I have already told you its seemingly simple tale?  For every moment you spend in Alice McDermott’s company.  Her writing spins a simple tale to gold, conveying the brevity, beauty, pain, and immeasurable value of life.

On one occasion, a young Marie comes home from school while her parents are out.  Her brother tells her she must be a good girl until they return:

It was my father’s phrase, “Be a good girl now,” but when my father said it, there was a wink about the words that also said he understood what a bland and tedious thing it was to be a good girl, little pagan that I was.  When my father said it, he was asking me to pretend, at least. He was saying he would admire me all the more for my pretending.  But my brother meant what he said.

Marie’s first love – her fiancé – breaks her heart, telling her that the girl he has decided to marry is prettier.  When she gets home:

I sat on the edge of the bed.  I wanted to take my glasses off, fling them across the room.  To tear the new hat from my head and fling it, too. Put my hands to my scalp and peel off the homely face.  Unbutton the dress, unbuckle the belt, remove the frail slip.  I wanted to reach behind my neck and unhook the flesh from the bone, open it along the zipper of my spine, step out of my skin and fling it to the floor.  Back shoulder stomach and breast.  Trample it.  Raise a fist to God for how He had shaped me in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.

Tell me that doesn’t just kill you.  Someone is a book for a quiet day or night.  It is perhaps most fundamentally a meditation on the meaning of a quiet life.  Which is, of course, never quiet on the inside.

9 Comments

  1. I had started listening to this as an audiobook but somehow didn’t get into it. Thanks for this, I think I may take it up again! She is a great writer.

  2. I can see how it might be a more difficult book to listen to than to read. Does that make sense? I am so happy to give you my copy next time we see each other!

  3. This one is a beauty.

  4. Very persuasive review — I will have to check it out. Thank you.

    • I hope so much you enjoy it! I would love to know what you think of it! Thank you for your kind comment.

  5. I simply adored this novel. When I reached the final five pages, I stopped and put it aside, deciding instead to savor it the next day when I was alert and fully in the moment.

    • Miriam, thank you for recommending this book to me! I love that you saved the last few pages. See you at Parnassus again soon! I am so happy to know you!

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