Isn't it funny how readers can have such vastly different reactions to the same book? I think I loved Alice McDermott's At Weddings and Wakes for just the reasons many other (Amazon) readers panned it. Too wordy? Beautifully lyrical. And actually I felt that she told her story with a perfect economy of prose. Pointless and plotless? Maybe we didn't read the same book. This is not a plot-driven story by any means, it's all about an Irish-American family living in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s. It's not a difficult read, but the structure is slightly complex and she does ask of the reader for their attention and a certain active participation in the storytelling process. Chick lit? No, we didn't read the same book. If a story is primarily about women does that make it boring chick lit? I suspect you already know how I feel about that one. Yes, there is much about the inner lives of women in this story, which I didn't find the least boring (just the opposite as a matter of fact) and definitely no less worthy than any other subject an author chooses to write about. I guess it all comes down to personal taste, right?
I'd say it's a nod to the author's abilities that it took me well into the middle of the book to realize that the chapters could almost be read as interlinked short stories (of course I'm partial to short stories, too), though the book is classified as a novel. Best to consider it as novel that is episodic in nature. I was too caught up initially in the beauty of the prose and the story(ies) she was telling to pay as much attention to how it is crafted to be honest. It's told from the perspective of three children, keen observers despite their youth of the faults and foibles, petty grievances, unhappiness and discontents as well as moments of pure bliss and enlightenment of their tight-knit extended family.
Twice a week in every week of summer, save for their summer holiday at the end of July and beginning of August, Margaret, Bobby and Maryanne travel from their home in Long Island to that of their grandmother's in Brooklyn. It's a ritual that includes a stop at a local candy shop for butterscotch Life Savers, bus and train rides and the purchase of warm, floury bread, the sort that "Christ ate at the Last Supper", to bring to Momma's. Momma is Lucy's stepmother, and the children's grandmother. She's also the sister of Lucy's mother who died in childbirth. Four daughters Annie and Jack had before departing the world. Momma took up caring for the girls and eventually married Jack adding a son to the brood before Jack decided to die, too.
Lucy's life is not how she imagined it would be. In her mind she thinks about leaving her husband and she discusses this possibility to Momma and her sisters, but at the end of the day when her husband arrives to take her and the children home, she fixes her hair and reapplies her lipstick and returns once again to her life. Her three sisters life spinster-lives with Momma, but John has left. Both John and Veronica, the youngest daughter--the one who never knew her mother--rely too much on alcohol to see them through life's difficulties.
The story of each adult sibling, as well as Momma's life is touched upon and reflected on. Some small or big event as witnessed by the children becomes the focus in turn. Agnes, the eldest leads a refined and cultured life as a career woman with elegant tastes and a decided opinion about how life should be lived. May was once a nun, but left the religious life behind when she became too dependent on it--loved it too much. She has a second chance at happiness when a romance sparks between her and the mailman. So smitten by her he sends her flowers every week. And Veronica, the youngest, leads a life once hopeful but tinged by sadness as she carries with hera scar on her face. She's a little too reliant on the cocktails that Agnes mixes to perfection for her sisters and Momma.
It's not just weddings and wakes that bring the family together, even though a cousin jokingly tells the the children "aren't you glad that you only have to see your relatives at weddings and wakes?", though the story is peppered with them. They're just the more obvious symbols of the joys and sadnesses that fill the lives of this family. A strength of the story is how representative their stories are of the greater world around us, no matter what the period.
Maybe Alice McDermott is not for everyone, but she is definitely for me. Why did I wait so long to pick this book up? It has been sitting patiently on my bookshelf for its turn for far too long (why I need to keep reading from my own shelves). I won't wait so long to read another book by her and am now off to scan my shelves for my copy of That Night, which I've heard many good things about.