“Maine” and plotting

In my previous post about the novel Maine (by J. Courtney Sullivan) I was complaining about its lack of verisimilitude.  I’ve now finished the book, and things got better on that front, although she talks at one point about “Irish Need Not Apply” signs; those signs are much more typically worded “No Irish Need Apply.”

OK, not a big deal.

Sullivan does a pretty good job of recreating the famous Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, which becomes a central incident in the narrative.  (My grandfather was a police captain in Boston back then and was on duty that night; he was worried that my mother and father (not then married) were celebrating at the nightclub, because my father had attended Holy Cross, which upset the heavily favored Boston College football team at Fenway Park that afternoon. The football game also figures in Sullivan’s retelling of the fire.)

On a scale of “threw the book across the room in disgust without finishing it” to “eagerly devoured the book and only wished it could be longer,” I rate Maine “had no problem finishing it, but wished it was 100 pages shorter.”  I don’t think the characters or, the plot justify the 500-page length.  Here’s the plot:

Three women (daughter, grand-daughter, and daughter-in-law) separately make their way up to Maine to visit the family matriarch at their summer home.  They argue about a couple of big issues in their lives.  Then they leave.

That’s about it.  It’s what I think of as an organic plot–it flows out of the characters rather than being imposed upon them.  I’m not complaining about that kind of plot, but I want more resolution than Maine offers.  The plot extends backward in the narrative as well as forward, which is also fairly standard.  A point-of-view character pours a cup of coffee and thinks about the past.  Another point-of-view character checks her email and thinks about the past.  Eventually we know a whole lot about these four people, how they think about each other and all the other people in their family, all of which informs the final confrontations.

This is all fine, except the final confrontations just don’t give us the payoff we’re looking for.  The problem is that nothing fundamental changes as a result of the confrontations.  The ending isn’t sappy, with all the conflicts of a lifetime somehow neatly resolved, but that doesn’t mean the ending is satisfying.  Take the Cocoanut Grove incident.  This turns out to be the motivating event in the matriarch’s life; everything that happens afterward–her marriage, her drinking, the way she treats her kids–flows from the secret she has held inside her about the fire.  She finally tells a priest the secret.  And then–nothing.  After 450 pages, I was looking for a bit of a payoff.  But she doesn’t change; nothing changes.

My guess is that the author fell in love with the outsized multi-generational Irish-American family whose story she was telling, and ultimately she couldn’t impose enough order on that story to make us care as much as she did.

But then, I’m a guy, and this is a book about women.  Maybe a couple of strong male characters would have changed my mind, but they pretty much don’t exist in Maine.  Sullivan should stretch herself and try a male point-of-view character in her next novel.  I’d give it a read!

4 thoughts on ““Maine” and plotting

  1. Pingback: An Organic Plot (Note: This is about writing, not gardening) | richard bowker

  2. The book was a little long, I agree. I read it awhile ago now, but I think the resolutions were more for the younger generation. The matriarch wasn’t going to change– that would have been inconsistent with her personality. I thought the theme of the book was about how the lives of the parents affect their children in different ways… alcoholism, depression, unfulfillment (is that a word?). Something of a bleak book, but how many women of the matriarch’s generation suffered like she did, unfulfilled as housewives? (Contrast the pregnant granddaughter’s choices with the matriarch’s life.) How much did the “secret” really poison the matriarch’s life? Or was it her own addiction that really was the poison? How did her children overcome their upbringing to reach their own peace?


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