I very much enjoyed listening to J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Maine on audio. It’s the kind of book that I probably enjoyed more on audio than I would have on paper; it’s hard to tell, but I might have remained indifferent reading on paper, but on audio, where I tend to get more emotionally caught up in the story, I enjoyed the family drama. It’s a multi-generational family saga, a genre which I’ll admit only occasionally appeals to me, but this one’s relatively tight focus worked well. It’s set roughly in the present time with flashbacks to earlier years to fill in back story, and I appreciated that we are never in the back story for too long and the shifts are handled well.
What made me like the book the most are the sharply-drawn characters, whom we see through multiple points of view, so we come to understand their inner lives as well as the reasons they drive other family members crazy. The book is divided into sections that switch among four different narrators: there’s Alice, the family matriarch, who is difficult and drinks too much, and whose past life her family knows only a little about. There’s Ann Marie, her daughter-in-law, a seemingly perfect martyr-type who tries so very, very hard to keep her world just so. There’s Kathleen, Alice’s daughter, a former alcoholic trying to stay as far away from her complicated family as possible, and there is Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, living in New York City and trying to forge a life for herself that feels genuine but that is very different from the lives of the other women in her family. Each character makes us understand her own inner life while we are in her head, in the kind of close third person perspective that made me think sometimes it was actually first person, while showing us how the others look from the outside, so the final picture of each character is richly complex.
The plot largely revolves around a summer home Alice owns in southern, coastal Maine that her children and grandchildren both love and loathe — it’s the site of many treasured memories but also of conflict and anxiety. There are numerous subplots, all of which Sullivan handles well. What I enjoyed most, though, is the book’s emotional complexity, its sense that each person contains more stories than we are ever aware of.