Tag Archives: Alice McDermott

Book Review: “Someone,” by Alice McDermott

There is a scene in Alice McDermott’s seventh novel, Someone, that perfectly displays the keen powers of observation that the author imparts to the main character, Marie. She is 10 years old and her mother figures it is high time she learns how to make Irish soda bread. The recipe is written out in her mother’s beautiful script. She insists Marie follow the recipe and offers no help.

This might seem on its face a routine scene, but McDermott infuses it with deeper meaning. When her mother announces she must take a trip downtown and leaves Marie to finish cooking, Maries sabotages the soda bread. The crafty Marie realizes that if she learns how to cook, her mother will force her to share in the household duties and she would rather go out and play with her friend. It is the child in Marie that doesn’t want to grow up too fast.

Later in the scene, McDermott foreshadows darker events through Marie’s deft description of the seemingly quotidian. Her mother attempts to salvage the soda bread and serves it to the family. McDermott writes, “The day had gone cloudy and the dining room was dim. My father had returned the piece of bread to his plate, but as if to convey sympathy, he still held the edge of it gently between his thumb and index finger—perhaps not wanting to hurt my feelings any further by letting go of it completely.” Then McDermott, through Marie’s description, drops a bombshell. Still looking closely at her father, Marie observes, “His other three fingers, held delicately aloft, were trembling. His broad hand against the white cloth and the china plate was a color I had not expected: the gray fingernails sunk too deeply into the swollen yellow flesh.” The reader will learn soon this was a sign of the illness that would claim her father.

But the scene isn’t over yet. Later that evening, Marie and her mother have an impromptu talk in Marie’s bedroom. Her mother confides she is worried about Marie’s father and they would stop by the hospital “to see if they couldn’t fix him up.” She tells her daughter for the second time that day, “You’re growing up.”

“Someone” is told episodically, not in chronological order. The scenes are snapshots of events throughout Marie’s life, beginning during the period between the two world wars. Her parents are lace-curtain Irish and their Brooklyn neighborhood is centered on family, friends and the Catholic church. Her brother, Gabe, is serious and studious. He is devoted to God and becomes a priest, but after a short time he leaves the priesthood and must face his own struggles. Gabe stubbornly stays in Brooklyn, even as the neighborhood declines and many of the neighbors move out to the suburbs. Marie marries a kind-hearted man and they move out to Long Island, where they have four children.

Throughout, there are the challenges families face: births, childhood, sickness and death, human frailties and failings. All are rendered in McDermott’s elegant, powerful prose.

Through all of life’s disappointments chronicled in this story, McDermott seems to be saying that family provides the stability and strength to see Marie through her life. McDermott is one of my favorite writers and it is always a joy to read her work. “Someone” does not disappoint.

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Who Are Your Favorite Authors?

A blogger recently posed the question, “Who are your favorite authors?” It’s not an easy one to answer. Tastes can change as readers are exposed to different authors. J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, kindled my interest in literature. I was a teen-ager when I read it the first time. Until then I read mostly sports biographies: The Mickey Mantle Story as told to (insert name of author), The Phil Rizzuto Story as told to…These books could hardly be considered literature, though with the rose-colored treatment these athletics received, they could well be classified as fiction.

In my 20’s I discovered the work of John Updike, Philip Roth and, later, Saul Bellow—three of the most gifted and prolific writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the 1980s, after watching the movie, The Accidental Tourist, I read the novel on which it was based. I was hooked on Anne Tyler’s work. She has become one of my favorite authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. I was drawn not only to the excellent writing and craftsmanship, but also the subject matter. Stories about family dynamics have always intrigued and fascinated me. The family is the basic social unit. Everybody starts out life as a member of a family. These writers explored the complex relationships and frailties of families in an original and authentic way.

When I began writing fiction in earnest in the mid-1990s, I gravitated toward family sagas. I felt at home writing in that genre. Though I prefer reading family sagas, I believe it’s important for writers to read widely among all genres. I also believe fiction writers should read non-fiction books on a regular basis. Nonfiction can be a good source of research for novels, but it also informs and enlightens the reader about the issues of the day.

Today, I read an eclectic list of authors, including Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Jennifer Haigh, Richard Ford, Sue Miller, Anita Shreve, and Richard Russo, among many others. I enjoy discovering new writers, including self-published authors.

Reading is a continual source of joy and fulfillment. It will enrich your life.

Who are your favorite authors?


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Author Spotlight: Alice McDermott

In a 2006 review of Alice McDermott’s novel After This, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Ms. McDermott gives us an affecting meditation on the consolations and discontents of family life — the centripetal and centrifugal forces that bind husbands and wives, parents and children together and fling them ineluctably apart.”

That astute observation applies to all of her brilliant work. Alice McDermott is a master at the craft, an author who never wastes a single word. Her novels are not long (most are under 300 pages), but are packed with penetrating insights into family, loss of innocence, dreams and disillusion.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Alice McDermott is the author of six novels: A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), Charming Billy (1998), Child of My Heart: A Novel (2002) and After This (2006).

McDermott is best known for Charming Billy, winner of an American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1999. In an interview with National Public Radio, McDermott talked about the character, Billy, who is introduced to the reader at a dinner held in his honor after his funeral. “He died an alcoholic and the book explores his deep and fierce loyalty to the dream his early love represented,” she said. That dream centered on a girl from Ireland, who Billy fell deeply in love with and vowed to marry. His best friend told him a white lie about the girl when Billy asks what happened to her and why she failed to respond to his inquiries. The girl’s ghost haunts Billy all his life, even after he later finds out the harsh truth.

Speaking about Billy, McDermott said, “He’s that stereotypical lovable Irishman, drinks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everyone else has gone home and with tears in his eyes, tells you how much he loves you. He’s a great guy but also he’s drinking himself to death and no one can stop him.”

Charming Billy is “ultimately a novel about faith, and what we believe in and, above all, what we choose to believe in. And I think that Billy in this community is someone who the people around him have to believe a romantic tale about…They need to make something more of his life.”

Her stories are rooted in the Long Island suburbs where McDermott grew up as an Irish-Catholic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The themes of faith and loss run through McDermott’s work. Family members grow up yearning to break free, but them find themselves trapped by circumstances and loyalties, bound to a life they never envisioned. Billy is a dreamer who pines for his lost love in Ireland, while struggling to cope with his every-day existence.

There is a sense of duty and decency to her characters that, in spite of their flaws, evokes sympathy in the reader.

McDermott once described writing as an obsession. In a New York Times interview after That Night was published, she said, ”I suppose I don’t know any other way of living. Not even just making sense of my own life, as I think the narrator of my novel is trying to do with hers. But I just don’t know any other way of getting along in the world…When I’m not writing -and I have considered many times trying something else – I can’t make sense out of anything. I feel the need to make some sense and find some order, and writing fiction is the only way I’ve found that seems to begin to do that. Even if the story or the novel ends up saying there is no sense and there is no order, at least I’ve made that much of an attempt.”

Alice McDermott’s novels make sense out of the frailties and mysteries of family life.



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Think Big. Write Small.

My alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, launched a branding campaign a few years ago that featured the tagline, “Think Big. We Do.” When it comes to fiction writing, the “think big” approach has great appeal, but it’s a double-edged sword. Writers want to write about big things: universal themes, stakes that matter, larger-than-life characters, wars, planets colliding, magic.

However, I believe some writers, especially novices, would do well to “think small.” Huh? You might be thinking I’ve lost my mind. Why should you as a writer limit yourself when the world is your canvass?

Let me share a cautionary tale. When I launched my “starter novel” in 1997, I yearned to write a big novel, grand in scope and concept. It was a story about baseball and politics, two of my passions. This story had everything: murder, kidnapping, extortion, political machinations. And it was terrible. I didn’t know enough about the craft. I got caught up in the giddiness of telling this big, complicated story. I figured if I piled on enough plot twists, mayhem and upheaval, I would have a runaway bestseller on my hands. It doesn’t work that way. I forgot about some important fundamentals, like story structure, character development, and theme. It was one 300-page, far-flung mess that will never see the light of day.

My second attempt at a novel was equally futile, though I had the wisdom to pull the plug a lot sooner. It was a political novel that I abandoned after 150 pages when I read Joe Klein’s novel, The Running Mate. It hit me then that Klein’s novel was exactly the kind of story I was trying to write, except that I lacked his skill, experience and knowledge.

At that point, I took stock. I didn’t even think about writing a novel for three years. I wrote some short stories and took part in my critique group. The fire to write a novel still burned in me, though. So I asked myself some hard questions:

Why did my first two novels fail?

Was it the subject matter? The story? The characters?

Was I just not that good?

These led to a tough self-diagnosis and then it hit me. These were the wrong questions. What I needed to figure out was this:

What do I really want to write about?

In pondering that question, I thought about what I liked to read and why. At the time I was reading Alice McDermott’s masterpiece, Charming Billy. I had read nearly every Anne Tyler novel and most of Alice Munro’s work. And that’s when it hit me. I knew what I wanted to write about: families in crisis. I didn’t write anything right away, but I waited for an idea to take hold. Two years later, I came up with the idea for Small Change. It was, pardon the pun, a small idea and a small story. I wanted to write about one family and their struggle to keep from falling apart. But I soon discovered I needed a second family that was the opposite of that family. And the two families would become connected in some way and there would be family secrets and the bonds would fray. For the first time, I was writing with passion. There are no spaceships or wizards or battles or vampires in this story. No hocus pocus. No kidnappings or murders. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.







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