My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I found this book slow-going at first - maybe because I started reading it in a doctor's waiting room with all its attendant distractions. But I soldiered on and at some point something clicked and I was there. There in the mind and life of Marie whose story this is.
Marie is an ordinary woman from an Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn. We first meet her when she is seven years old, waiting on the front stoop of her apartment building for her beloved father to come home from work. While she is waiting, a young woman named Pegeen, a neighbor, stops by, having herself returned from work. The two talk and Marie learns that Pegeen has suffered a fall on the subway. Later that night, Pegeen dies, perhaps as a result of that fall. This event sets the bittersweet tone of this novel, where death is always present. Death is a part of life. Especially ordinary lives.
Marie's story is told in strictly nonchronological fashion. Instead, we get her recollections as they might have occurred to her on any given day late in her life when she is the final survivor, the only one left from that early neighborhood. Those recollections are scattered from childhood to old age, with adolescence, young adulthood, motherhood, middle age all playing their part. We follow Marie through the aches and pains of adolescence, the exquisite pain of first love and sexual awakening. We feel her devastation when the adored and adoring father dies, leaving Marie, her mother, and her older brother Gabe.
Gabe, too, is an interesting character. He is the firstborn, the golden child of whom so much is expected. A solemn scholar, he is destined for the priesthood and maybe someday the office of bishop. He makes a start on that road, but finds he cannot continue after his father's death challenges his faith. He leaves the priesthood and joins the military. This is during World War II. He is a lonely soul for reasons which Marie at first does not understand. Later he suffers a mental breakdown which will further impact the lives of Marie and her family.
Marie, meanwhile, is a bit of a tearaway, an obstinate and rebellious child. Her father indulgently referred to her as their little pagan. All that is expected of her is that she will marry and have children.
Through Marie's life we see the changing world of the Irish-American community in Brooklyn at around the mid-point of the last century. The importance of the Church, the family, the neighborhood is all there in the recollections of the ordinary daily lives of Marie and the people around her.
The grown-up Marie resists going to work, until her mother finds her a position with the local funeral parlor that is so much a part of the social life of the community. She reluctantly goes for her interview and is immediately hired. She will be a "consoling angel" at the mortuary. She will continue there through her marriage until she is pregnant with her first child.
Death is the angel that hangs over everything here. The young child Marie's best friend's pregnant mother teaches her friend to cook. When the woman's baby comes, she dies an agonizing death in childbirth. Later, Marie's mother tries to teach her to bake soda bread, but the child slyly sabotages it by putting in too much soda. She appears uncooperative and rebellious. It is only much later in the narrative that we learn that, to her child's mind, she had thought that if she learned to cook, her mother would die.
Marie's first love becomes a humiliating experience when the man she loves rejects her to marry a richer, prettier girl. She cries to her brother that no one will ever want to marry her. He consoles her by telling her that, yes, someone will.
And someone does. She marries a good and decent man and they have a long-lasting marriage and a happy life together. They have four children, the first of whom is born after an excruciating labor that had me squirming in sympathy. Afterwards, an infection almost kills her. She is told not to have any more children, but ever rebellious, she chooses the more dangerous path.
Nothing earth-shattering or terribly dramatic happens in this book. It is literally a chronicle of the everyday life of ordinary people, of the universal experience of urgent matters of life and death. But it is a finely tuned and beautiful book with haunting imagery that confers dignity and importance even to these humble, ordinary lives. I identified strongly with Marie, because I, too, have an ordinary life. Perhaps that's why I loved this book so much.
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