A couple of weeks ago I was browsing in Barnes and Noble and ran across a smallish novel—a novella really—by Alice McDermott entitled Someone. I had heard of McDermott but never read anything by her. I picked it up and flipped through it, and it looked like it might be interesting, and so I went home and ordered it on my Kindle. (I know, I know. I feel some slight twinge of guilt about that. But B&N gets a significant chunk of my income anyway, and there are some times that I prefer reading an ebook.). Anyway, I found the book deeply engaging in a charming, old-fashioned way. The narrator, Marie is a woman from an Irish family in Brooklyn, and she tells the story of her life in a series of episodes, not always in chronological order. McDermott is patient and painterly both in her narration of events and in her descriptions of physical settings, and through her intelligent, watchful narrator she often freights her descriptions with obliquely (and sometimes overtly) metaphysical overtones:
The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining-room table where the cloth—starched linen expertly decorated with my mother’s meticulous cross-stitch—had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood. It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, all the wild imaginings that go into the study of heaven and hell, don’t shortchange, after all, that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light.
As the novel unfolds in its patient, unhurried way, Marie passes from being a nearsighted, socially awkward girl into a deliberate, thoughtful, courageous woman. There are times when her hopes are raised only to be destroyed, but Marie's resilience, optimism, and essentially good-heartedness make it possible for her to carry on. I'm perhaps making it sound like the novel is sentimental. It's not. It's realistic, but encouraging. I liked how I felt while I was reading it. I liked being able to spend time inside Marie's world and Marie's mind.
Right after I finished Someone, I happened to be looking in the stacks at my school library for another author whose name begins with M, and lo and behold, it turns out they had several other books by McDermott on the shelf. I picked up Child of My Heart and read that. Then, since she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy, I read that, and now I'm reading After This.
Of the three I've read, my favorite is Child of My Heart. Theresa, the narrator of this book, is a fifteen-year-old, also from a Brooklyn Irish family (now living on Long Island), but in this case all of the events take place within a single summer, in fact, the first 100 pages or so detail the events of a single day at the beach. Theresa is working as a babysitter for two children: the young daughter of a well-know artist in the community and her own younger cousin Daisy from Brooklyn, out to spend a few weeks on the shore and away from her claustrophobic family. Again, there is something patient and deliberate and totally convincing about McDermott's description, which serves as a kind of indirect characterization of her narrator, the kind of person on whom truly nothing is lost. She is completely present to and at home in the moment. And thus, necessarily, so are we. Here, for example, is a description as Theresa and Daisy approach the artist's house together for the first time:
Inside, the path was mostly grown over—only a sprinkling of tiny rocks and sand here and there among the weeds and the fallen branches. The path ran through a pretty substantial wood, this whole side of the property was heavily wooded, and because the sunlight came in stripes—thick shafts of it, ahead of us and to either side—the undergrowth still felt damp and the air a little musty. Suddenly the sun, which had been growing progressively, appropriately, warmer on our heads throughout the morning, seemed to have lost its pace, or its rhythm—its certainty, anyway—and for a moment I felt we could have been passing through any time of day at all, early morning, late afternoon, and nearly any season. I mentioned this to Daisy and she said, "It's nice." There was a scurry of salamanders or field mice near our feet, and the crossing shadows of birds high up in the leaves. I stopped to break a stalk of milkweed for Daisy, and she nodded earnestly, as she did at everything I had to show here. I took her hand. Cathedral light, to be sure, and the smell of the damp earth and the wet wood and, as I began to see the shape of Flora's house through the trees, the faint whiff of paint or turpentine, or whatever it was that Flora's father was using—something to do with art, anyway.
Something to do with art, indeed. This passage, while chosen more or less at random, is fully representative of McDermott's style. There's a physicality about her writing that works both as description and as metaphor, and brings us very deeply in under the narrator's skin.
McDermott is, I suspect, not for everyone. She's a miniaturist of sorts, and her great strength is that her writing is attuned to the mundane interactions of everyday life in a way that illuminates them and makes them feel, frequently, well, miraculous. There's a great scene in the early part of After This where a family (Mom, Dad, and three kids) spend the morning at the beach together. A rising storm brings wind that drives them into their car to have lunch, and the chapter that describes the five souls constrained in that small space for the meal shines a light down through the rest of their lives. I don't know exactly how McDermott carries it off, but I'm really impressed.