John and Mary Keane are ordinary people, too ordinary perhaps by today's standards: quiet, steady, dependable. They grew up during the Depression and World War II, and when these were over and done, they met and married and managed to get along with each other, sometimes better than others, and had four children who lived different lives entirely.
This is the kind of plotline that would challenge most authors beyond their capabilities, accustomed as they are these days to more exciting literary forays. However, like Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott knows what she's doing: Her five previous novels, dealing with similar ordinary people and situations, have earned her critical kudos and a fistful of honors and tributes. Out of the rich soil of that old critics' cliché, the human condition, McDermott raises uncommon, and uncommonly beautiful, plants.
John and Mary are not so much individuals as middle-class, Irish Catholic archetypes (referred to mostly in terms of their relationships to others), but their children are allotted personalities of their own. Life on Long Island, the Vietnam War, cultural upheaval, the sexual revolution—all play their part in the individualization of the two sons and two daughters of whom we take leave far too early. The characters learn that life goes fast: "one moment nudges the other out of the way." And, in the end, "you could not have [the future] without the [loss of the past]."
With McDermott, there is always more than meets the eye. One delicately drawn scene of the family at the beach shadows all the dreams and fears of the future in the present play of relationships. Then there is the most faithful (eight pages but still engaging!) replay I've ever read of standing in line (at the World's Fair), and the occasional reference to a neighborhood pianist, which culminates in a final point: To live life honorably and fully is a gift which blesses you and those around you.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2006 July #2
A disarmingly understated tale of mid-to-late-20th-century Long Island Catholics from McDermott, who has come to own this particular literary turf after five penetrating novels and a National Book Award.Mary and John Keane meet in a Schrafft's restaurant shortly after WWII, fall in love, marry and raise four children. Conventional, middle-class Catholics whose lives center on their neighborhood parish and their family, they have their quirks. Mary half-despises her "best friend" Pauline, a lonely alcoholic who plays spinster aunt to the Keane children. John names their eldest son Jacob, after a young Jewish soldier with whom he served in the war and whose death continues to haunt him. John and Mary have their differences, but their marriage is solid, while their protective, worried love for their children is palpable and real. John's dismay that gentle, good-natured Jacob lacks the athletic or intellectual gifts of his younger brother Michael is particularly credible and well-rendered. Annie has a special connection with her mother, while youngest daughter Clare, whose emergency birth occurs at home with the help of a neighbor, forms a close bond with Pauline. As the children grow up through the '50s and '60s, their story ambles through disconnected, if charming, moments, like Mary's trip with Annie to view the PietÃ at the World's Fair. When the kids reach adolescence, their lives give the narrative some forward momentum. Spunky, bookish Annie ends up in England with her British boyfriend. Jacob is killed in Vietnam. Michael becomes a teacher. Clare, a high-school senior, finds herself pregnant and decides to keep the baby. The novel closes with her wedding and the bittersweet possibilities it promises. McDermott (Child of My Heart, 2002, etc.) infuses the undulating plot with the knowledge that lives become most vivid in small moments of connection, flashlight beams (a recurring motif) illuminating the dark.Genuinely moving yet amorphous, like a remembered fragrance that you can't quite place. Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 May #2
While siblings Michael and Annie swing during the Sixties, their big brother heads for Vietnam. With a national tour. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 September #1
In her sixth novel, National Book Award winner McDermott (Charming Billy ) continues her examination of the modern Irish American Catholic experience. Through a series of linked vignettes, this quiet story highlights events in the Keane family of Long Island over several decades. John and Mary Keane's somewhat surprising engagement in the late 1940s (both are a little past the usual marrying age) brings about an enduring union. Together, they manage to meet the challenges of raising four children on a limited income, confronting the social and religious struggles of the mid-20th century, and hardest of all losing to the Vietnam War the son they had named for a long-dead World War II soldier. McDermott knows this domestic milieu intimately, and her sure authorial hand illuminates the inner lives of these ordinary people in a way that resonates beyond the mundane to the broad human condition. Recommended for most fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/06.] Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA[Page 138]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
A master at capturing Irish-Catholic American suburban life, particularly in That Night (1987) and the National Book Award-winning Charming Billy (1998), McDermott returns for this sixth novel with the Keane family of Long Island, who get swept up in the wake of the Vietnam War. When John and Mary Keane marry shortly after WWII, she's on the verge of spinsterhood, and he's a vet haunted by the death of a young private in his platoon. Jacob, their first-born, is given the dead soldier's name, an omen that will haunt the family when Jacob is killed in Vietnam (hauntingly underplayed by McDermott). In vignette-like chapters, some of which are stunning set pieces, McDermott probes the remaining family's inner lives. Catholic faith and Irish heritage anchor John and Mary's feelings, but their children experience their generation's doubt, rebellion and loss of innocence: next eldest Michael, who had always dominated Jacob, drowns his guilt and regret in sex and drugs; Anne quits college and moves to London with a lover; Clare, a high school senior, gets pregnant. The story of '60s and '70s suburbia has been told before, and McDermott has little to say about the Vietnam War itself. But she flawlessly encapsulates an era in the private moments of one family's life. (Sept.)[Page 37]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.