By Alice McDermott
Read Jan 2021
The beauty of McDermott’s books comes from her ability to provide us with a scene from a life. It’s sparse but complete. It’s tender but slightly sharp. It tells the perception of the narrating character but manages to somehow convey the reality of the situation.
Such is the beauty of Someone, a series of scenes of the life of narrator Marie. We encounter her first when she is a girl of seven. She waits on the stoop of their Brooklyn house for her father who will be arriving home from his desk, not laborer, job. Her brother Gabe is studying inside. His friends are playing stickball in the street. Her mother is preparing dinner. We are treated to the arrival of her father, her jubilation from his presence, and their little rituals of greeting, pre- and post-dinner habits. We learn a bit about the neighborhood and the neighbors, hear the names of characters who will turn up throughout Marie’s life, get a hint of her poor eyesight, and a hint as well of the serious nature of her big brother Gabe.
The various chapters begin somewhat chronologically but as the book progresses, they move back and forth a bit. The story of her cataract surgery comes before the story of her wedding day. A story of being in a nursing home precedes the story of the birth of her first child. Each has been written in past tense and it’s a marvelous approach that the memories become unordered just as our own memories are even when we might try to start at the beginning.
Marie’s story is set in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn and we learn it’s evolving. Marie’s mother wouldn’t consider leaving it so Gabe lives with her in that same apartment until she passes although Marie and her husband have moved to a house in the Bronx. Gabe’s brother had been ordained a Catholic priest. Why did he leave the priesthood and return to live with his mother? We get a possible explanation late in the book but we also feel slightly guilty that it’s really none of our business. Marie tells us some things but not others. Maybe she knows answers and maybe she doesn’t. She tells us what is important to her which is what matters.
The specifics of Marie’s life are shaped somewhat by the time and place in which she lives, but the phases of life she passes through are universal as are many of the feelings she does and doesn’t tell us. It’s certainly no surprise to this reader that Someone was a finalist for the National Book Award. This reader looks forward to savoring more of her simultaneously understated and powerful books.