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.
One 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.