Not Oprah’s Book Club: Maine

Maine is the second novel from J. Courtney Sullivan, who I interviewed last year, and who co-edited the anthology Click with our own Courtney.

Like Sullivan’s first novel Commencement, Maine shows us the world through the eyes of four different women. This time, however, the women are connected not by the bonds of friendship, but by blood and by marriage – which, as we all know, sometimes fail to bind us together in the ways we might hope. And because the main characters in Maine are older than those in Commencement, Maine feels like a more adult version of Sullivan’s first book, as though Sullivan has grown up, and so too have the people through whom she tells her stories.

Alcoholism. Abortion. Infidelity. Sexual harassment. Unemployment. Death. None of these things are cause for laughter.

And yet, I found myself giggling through much of Maine, a book that explores all those issues. This was not because Sullivan takes these issues lightly; she writes about them with all gravity they deserve. But she also manages to make us laugh, not at these problems, but at the way ordinary people deal with them – sometimes awkwardly, sometimes with an admirable sense of humour, sometimes with a dysfunctional gracelessness at which you just have to laugh.

As was the case with Commencement, some characters are more likeable than others, and I found myself feeling relieved when I turned the page to find that the next chapter of the story would be told from their point of view. But Sullivan has a way of making you feel deep sympathy for the most deeply unlikeable of her characters. She has a way of showing you their humanity even when no one else around them can see it.

It is hard to sympathize with a cruelly judgmental mother whose vanity and lack of self control almost got her young children killed. It is hard to sympathize with a haughty, self-satisfied homemaker who looks down on those around and is utterly blind to her own weaknesses and those of her children. Sullivan somehow makes it easy. You get the sense that she loves her characters, flawed as they are. I can’t say that I loved them, but I did enjoy spending a few hundred pages with them.

Maine will be out on June 14th, and I highly recommend that you go pick up a copy.

You can read the first chapter here.

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