By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2013
If you have time to read only one novel during the upcoming end-of-the-year hectic holiday season, I urge you to consider Someone by Alice McDermott. She is back after a 7-year absence. For those of you who unfamiliar with Alice McDermott, she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy in 1998 and has been thrice nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Five of her six previous novels have been nominated for national awards. I do not write this because I am bedazzled by awards, only to indicate this woman has “writing chops.” Someone, her seventh novel, might well be her masterpiece – so far.
Set in Brooklyn, Someone is the story of an ordinary woman told through her eyes. Marie is very observant, “a noticer,” but rather a passive girl. We meet 7-year-old Marie while she is sitting on the stoop waiting for her father’s return from work. Pegeen Chehab, a neighbor girl just recently graduated from Manual Training (a high school in Brooklyn) comes home from her job in Manhattan, “That filthy place” as she tells Marie. She chats with our little protagonist a bit, telling her about the unpleasant people at work, forgetting a library book on the subway, and falling down again which she does almost every day. Exacting a promise from Marie not to tell Mrs. Chehab, Pegeen prattles on with what turns out to be a prophetic synopsis of Marie’s life. “But there’s always someone nice…..Someone always helps me up…a very handsome man gave me his hand. He asked if I was all right…..I’m going to look for him again…..I’m going to pretend to fall…. And he’ll catch me and say, ‘Is it you again?’….We’ll see what happens then. That will be something to see.”
Marie watches Pegeen climb the stairs of her next-door house, taking one step at a time, “like a small child.” The reader has to wonder why an 18 year old girl is falling consistently and seems so hesitant in climbing familiar stairs. Later that night Pegeen took a fatal fall down her basement steps. The neighborhood woke up to the ambulance arriving to pick up Pegeen’s body. Marie’s mother and brother try to shield her from the wailing of Mrs. Chehab, but cannot. Marie’s mother and many of the neighbors explain that Pegeen was always clumsy, but the undertaker Mr. Fagin believes there was a “burden of the brain” that caused Pegeen’s falls.
The author takes the entire first chapter and well into the second chapter to tell Pegeen’s story and to introduce Marie’s family. Slowly, deliberately, detailing the aspects of mother’s apron with the rickrack trim, dad’s shining shoes and his hand cupping the cigarette he lights, soaking sugar cubes in tea, brother Gabe’s gesticulations while reciting “Ozymandias” after evening tea, listening to the radio, bath time and bed time. She introduces us to this neighborhood as a 7-year-old perceived it or at least as a mature Marie remembered experiencing it. All these story elements are weaved into mature Marie’s story later, when she learns more about these incidents.
Interestingly, McDermott never uses dates in her narrative but the reader deduces the time period from her vivid descriptions and precise prose. We know by the deliberate use of terms such as, “suburb, carport, rickrack trim, foundling,” as well as descriptions of clothing, Brylcreemed hair, walking everywhere, evenings spent listening to the radio, afternoon movies on the TV, and the car is a Belvedere. Of course since Marie is telling the story, we know by the events in her life. The small moments that make up an ordinary life are attended to, not the outside world except when it imposes itselfbut even World War II is never mentioned by name. We know it is wartime because Marie is working as a greeter at Mr. Fagin’s funeral home and brother Gabe is at a base in England and the neighborhood is bereft of young men. A perk of Marie’s job is that she meets soldiers and sailors who are home to attend funerals at Mr. Fagin’s, so she has an active social life.
McDermott gives the reader many astonishingly tender moments in this novel. Shortly after Pegeen’s demise, Marie goes to visit her best friend Gerty Hanson, whose mom is pregnant with her fifth child. Gerty has been cooking all morning and Mrs. Hanson welcomes Marie in, encouraging her to take Gerty out for some fun. Overcome with affection for this generous loving woman, Marie wraps her arms around Mrs. Hanson’s neck, Gerty joins in and they have a hug/kiss fest before the girls are on their way. She tips them that there is a wedding at the church around the corner – they should be able to catch the bride going in. What 7-year-old girls would miss seeing a bride? In an incident a few years later involving her own mother, who is trying to teach a very stubborn Marie how to bake soda bread, her mother softly says, “I suppose this is how it’s going to be, you’re growing up.” She put her hand gently on Marie’s head. “God help us both.”
Someone is the story of an unremarkable woman living an unremarkable life. Her life is full of love. She has a loving family and was raised in a web of love in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn, but her life is not without tragedy and hardship. There are many funerals in this book, many heart breaks. Marie’s father dies from cancer while she is still very young. There are deaths in the neighborhood including old Bill Corrigan, blinded by mustard gas in the WW I. Sitting on the sidewalk on his kitchen chair, Bill served as “umpire” for the stickball games, assisted by Walter Hartnett, a young boy with a “gimpy” leg who could not play. Bill’s funeral is especially poignant because the entire neighborhood knew him and he committed suicide, hence could not be buried in the Catholic cemetery. A 17-year-old Marie heart is broken very cruelly by her first boyfriend, Walter Hartnett. Gabe takes her on a long walk to salve her crushed spirit. When she asks who will ever love her, he replies, “Someone.” Marie almost dies giving birth to her first child, is told to have no more children. After a 2-month recuperation at her mother and Gabe’s apartment, she gets pregnant on her first night home with her husband and her first two children, boys, were Irish Twins, born 11 months apart. She goes on to have two daughters as well, but not Irish Twins.
I found it somewhat of a relief to read about people who were just people. I loved stepping back to a time before play dates, when everyone in the neighborhood played with ALL the other kids, where neighbors knew each other and the inside of each other’s homes, knew what to gossip about and what not to repeat, where kids could play stickball in the street and only be interrupted once or twice by cars. Where people never heard “depression” without the in front of it. That world is gone forever, but it was lovely to visit.
Although Irish Catholicism permeates the story, it does not overwhelm it. You do not need to be Catholic or even know anything about religion at all to relish this novel. It is a human story, about a girl who wanted respect, control over her life, and love – what we all want. Someone is eloquent, exquisite, extraordinary.