by J. Courtney Sullivan
In her bestselling debut, Commencement, J. Courtney Sullivan explored the complicated and contradictory landscape of female friendship. Now, in her highly anticipated second novel, Sullivan takes us into even richer territory, introducing four unforgettable women who have nothing in common but the fact that, like it or not, they're family.
For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. Their beachfront property, won on a barroom bet after the war, sits on three acres of sand and pine nestled between stretches of rocky coast, with one tree bearing the initials “A.H.” At the cottage, built by Kelleher hands, cocktail hour follows morning mass, nosy grandchildren snoop in drawers, and decades-old grudges simmer beneath the surface.
As three generations of Kelleher women descend on the property one summer, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is 32 and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.
By turns wickedly funny and achingly sad, Maine unveils the sibling rivalry, alcoholism, social climbing, and Catholic guilt at the center of one family, along with the abiding, often irrational love that keeps them coming back, every summer, to Maine and to each other.
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1. The epigraph pairs two quotes; the first is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem Aurora Leigh: “Alas, a mother never is afraid, / Of speaking angrily to any child, / Since love, she knows, is justified of love.” The second is from a letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Just do everything we didn't do and you will be perfectly safe.” Why did the author put these quotes together? Which characters do you think they refer to?
2. If you had to choose one word to describe the overriding theme of Maine, what would it be?
3. Which of the women in the novel would you say is a good mother, and why? Who resents motherhood the most?
4. Discuss how each of the four main characters --- Alice, Kathleen, Maggie, and Ann Marie --- approaches religion. Who seems to have the most comfortable relationship with God?
5. What was Alice's motivation for changing her will? Why did she wait so long to tell her family?
6. Speaking of secrets, many of the characters in the novel keep substantial secrets for one reason or another. Whose is the most damaging?
7. What role does alcohol --- and alcoholism --- play in the novel? How do the characters use alcohol (or abstain from it)?
8. “Even after thirty-three years of marriage, Ann Marie sat at every family dinner and listened to them tell the same stories, over and over. She has never met a family so tied up in their own mythology.” (page 140) What is the mythology of the Kelleher family? Who is helped the most by it? And harmed the most?
9. What does Ann Marie's obsession with dollhouses tell us about her character?
10. After Daniel's funeral, Alice says to Kathleen, “You killed him, and now you want me dead too, is that it?” (page 189) Why does she lash out like this?
11. Why did Daniel's death have such an impact on the family?
12. What did you think of the revelation about Mary's death? Was Alice right to blame herself?
13. On page 301, Maggie says to Kathleen, “I actually want this baby. I don't feel it's a mistake the way you did with us.” Why does Maggie feel this way about her mother? Do you agree with her assessment?
14. And on page 310, Kathleen says to Alice, “News flash, Mom, you really weren't that talented. None of us stopped you from becoming anything. That was a stupid childish dream like everyone else has.” How does this relate to Maggie's earlier outburst? How does the notion of sacrifice play into each woman's story about herself?
15. How did Ann Marie misread Steve so completely? And why does Kathleen's witnessing the event change her attitude towards Ann Marie? Why do you think Kathleen reacted the way she did?
16. What kind of mother do you think Maggie will be? Who will she take after most: Alice, Kathleen, or Ann Marie?
17. Discuss the last lines of the book: “She prayed until she heard footsteps behind her, coming slowly down the aisle, a familiar voice softly calling out her name: ‘Alice? Alice. It's time.'” Is this Father Donnelly, Daniel, or someone else?
18. Which of these women would you like to spend more time with? Are there any you'd never want to see again?
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"I have never stayed at this cottage in Maine, or any cottage in Maine, but no matter: I now feel I know what it's like being in a family that comes to the same place summer after summer, unpacking their familiar longings, slights, shorthand conversation, and ways of being together. J. Courtney Sullivan's Maine is evocative, funny, close-quartered, and highly appealing."
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling
"Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan is a powerful novel about the ties that bind families tight, no matter how dysfunctional. Sullivan has created in the Kelleher women a cast of flawed but lovable characters so real, with their shared history of guilt and heartache and secret resentments, that I'm sure I'll be thinking about them for a long time to come."
Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot
"Everyone has dark secrets. It's why God invented confession and booze, two balms frequently employed in Sullivan's well-wrought sophomore effort. Alice Brennan is Irish American through and through, the daughter of a cop, a good Catholic girl so outwardly pure that she's a candidate for the papacy…As Sullivan's tale unfolds, there are plenty of reasons that Alice might wish to avoid taking too close a look at her life: There's tragedy and heartbreak around every corner, as there is in every life…Sullivan spins a leisurely yarn that looks into why people do the things they do --- particularly when it comes to drinking and churchgoing --- and why the best-laid plans are always the ones the devil monkeys with the most thoroughly. The story will be particularly meaningful to Catholic women, though there are no barriers to entry for those who are not of that faith. Mature, thoughtful, even meditative at times --- but also quite entertaining."
"At the heart of this compelling novel of three generations of women emotionally stunted by fate and willful stubbornness is the family vacation property in Cape Neddick, ME, where the Kellehers have convened for six decades... In her second novel (after Commencement), Sullivan brilliantly lays out the case for the nearly futile task of these three generations of badly damaged Irish Catholic women seeking acceptance from one another."