“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!

“Maine,” “Sunrise,” and Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude is tricky.  I find myself caring deeply about how realistic a work of art is in some contexts, not at all in others. A couple of evenings ago I watched the silent film Sunrise, then started the contemporary novel Maine, and I had completely opposite reactions to their lack of verisimilitude.

Sunrise, subtitled A Song of Two Humans, came in fifth in the recent poll of the greatest movies of all time.  It was made in 1927 by the director F. W. Murnau (working in Hollywood for the first time);  Murnau also directed the silent vampire film Nosferatu.  Sunrise is a sweet love story; it is also completely bonkers.

The characters have no names.  The man has fallen in love with the Woman from the City.  Following an unbelievably awesome tracking shot, he meets her by the shore.  She wants him to come to the City with her.  But what about his wife?  Well, you should drown her!

Drown your wife, already!

Er, isn’t there a less drastic approach?  Like, er, divorce?  And, er, what about the man’s baby?  No matter!  He must drown his wife!  So he trudges around thinking about drowning his wife.  Apparently Murnau made the actor wear lead weights in his shoes so he’d look like a man thinking about drowning his wife.  Not that his wife notices.  She tells her maid: “Yay!  We’re going out for a boat trip!  Don’t wait up for us!  Someone else will do the chores on the farm!”  And so on.

But, you know, it’s a great movie.  I wouldn’t put it in my top ten list, but many images from it are going to stay with me.  I haven’t watched a lot of silent movies, but Netflix and Turner Classic Movies are helping to remedy the gap in my education.  The ones I’ve seen seem much like grand opera — big emotions, very static, and completely unrealistic.  (I love it in opera when you get big arias from characters who have just been suffocated, as in Aida and Rigoletto.)  You just have to go with the flow.

And then there’s Maine.  It’s a big, realistic novel about three generations of an Irish-Catholic family with a summer home in Maine.  The structure is to alternate chapters from different points of view among four female characters representing each of these generations.  You see each character in the present, but their memories fill in seventy years or so of family history.  A reasonable structure.  And the characters draw you in–it doesn’t take long for you to want to find out how everything turns out, even though the point-of-view women characters are either jerks or idiots.  But in a novel like this, verisimilitude counts for a lot.  There isn’t much plot–there is just life as it is lived.  And here, the author makes enough mistakes in the parts of life that I know something about that it really interferes with my enjoyment of the novel.  I don’t know about vermiculture in California, or the life of young singles in Manhattan (two areas that the novel covers), but I do know about Irish-Catholic families around Boston, and here I think the author just doesn’t have things quite right.  A few examples:

  • She has the grandmother going to daily 10:00 Mass in her summer home.  But parishes don’t have daily 10:00 Masses anymore.  (And it just takes you a minute to look this up on the Internet.)
  • The grandmother’s parish in her hometown of Canton, MA has closed, so she goes to Mass in Milton, instead.  That’s nuts.  Why would she drive all the way to Milton to go to Mass?  There are plenty of Catholic churches closer to Canton than that.  (The church she would be attending in Milton was the church where I was married.)
  • The grandmother’s son is supposed to have graduated sixth in his class from Notre Dame.  But I’ve never heard of any university publishing a rank in class like that.
  • One of the daughters complains that the son got sent to an expensive private school, while they had to go to public school.  Presumably they went to Canton High–a pretty good school!  And the son went to B. C. High–also a good school!  But not that much better, and actually not that expensive–I happen to know that tuition was $400 per year in the time period when this took place.  Anyone who lived in Canton could easily afford it.

And so on.  OK, all this stuff is trivial.  But it’s more annoying than the more idiotic lack of verisimilitude in Sunrise, because Sunrise doesn’t even pretend to be realistic.  I don’t think these glitches make Maine a bad novel, but the author could have done a little more research and made it a much better one.