Someone (McDermott)

Alice McDermott, 2013
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
240 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780374281090

An ordinary life—its sharp pains and unexpected joys, its bursts of clarity and moments of confusion—lived by an ordinary woman: this is the subject of Someone, Alice McDermott’s extraordinary return, seven years after the publication of After This. Scattered recollections—of childhood, adolescence, motherhood, old age—come together in this transformative narrative, stitched into a vibrant whole by McDermott’s deft, lyrical voice.

Our first glimpse of Marie is as a child: a girl in glasses waiting on a Brooklyn stoop for her beloved father to come home from work. A seemingly innocuous encounter with a young woman named Pegeen sets the bittersweet tone of this remarkable novel. Pegeen describes herself as an “amadan,” a fool; indeed, soon after her chat with Marie, Pegeen tumbles down her own basement stairs. The magic of McDermott’s novel lies in how it reveals us all as fools for this or that, in one way or another.

Marie’s first heartbreak and her eventual marriage; her brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest, subsequent loss of faith, and eventual breakdown; the Second World War; her parents’ deaths; the births and lives of Marie’s children; the changing world of her Irish-American enclave in Brooklyn—McDermott sketches all of it with sympathy and insight. This is a novel that speaks of life as it is daily lived; a crowning achievement by one of the finest American writers at work today. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 27, 1953
Where—Brooklyn, New York, USA
Education—B.A., State University of New York-Oswego;
   M.A., University of New Hampshire
Awards—National Book Award; American Book Award
Currently—lives in Bethesda, Maryland

Alice McDermott is an American writer and university professor. For her 1998 novel Charming Billy she won an American Book Award and the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

McDermott is Johns Hopkins University's Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities. Born in Brooklyn, New York, McDermott attended St. Boniface School in Elmont, New York, on Long Island (1967), Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead (1971), and the State University of New York at Oswego, receiving her BA in 1975. She received her MA from the University of New Hampshire in 1978.

She has taught at UCSD and American University, has been a writer-in-residence at Lynchburg College and Hollins College in Virginia, and was lecturer in English at the University of New Hampshire. Her short stories have appeared in Ms., Redbook, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker and Seventeen. She has also published articles in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Ms. McDermott lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband, a neuroscientist, and three children.

• 1982—A Bigamist's Daughter
• 1987—That Night (finalist for National Book Award, Pen/Faulkner Award, and Pulitzer Prize)
• 1992—At Weddings and Wakes (finalist for Pulitzer Prize)
• 1998—Charming Billy (winner, National Book Award and American Book Award)
• 2002—Child of My Heart (nominated for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award)
• 2006—After This (finalist for Pulitzer Prize)
• 2013—Someone
• 2017—The Ninth Hour
(Author bio from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/14/13.)

Book Reviews
[T]he novel looks back on [Marie's] life—from her childhood in prewar Brooklyn…through the years of her marriage on Long Island…to her dotage in a nursing home. As such, it has something of the quality of a slide show, but one that's a bit jumbled…Each slide, each scene, from the ostensibly inconsequential to the clearly momentous, is illuminated with equal care. The effect on the reader is of sitting alongside the narrator, sharing the task of sifting the salvaged fragments of her life, watching her puzzle over, rearrange and reconsider them—and at last, but without any particular urgency or certitude, tilting herself in the direction of finally discerning their significance. This is a quiet business, but it's the sense-making we all engage in, the narrative work that allows us to construct a coherent framework for our everyday existence. It's also a serious business, the essential work of an examined life…McDermott's excellence is on ample display here.
Leah Hager Cohen - New York Times Book Review

In this deceptively simple tour de force, McDermott lays bare the keenly observed life of Marie Commeford.... We come to feel for this unremarkable woman, whose vulnerability makes her all the more winning—and makes her worthy of our attention.... [McDermott] is such an exceptional writer: in her hands, an uncomplicated life becomes singularly fascinating.
Publishers Weekly

All people are interesting if we only know their story.... [T]his novel moves from one emotionally rich touch point to the next in a nonlinear narrative that echoes memory itself.... McDermott continues to captivate readers by delving into ordinary, daily life with skill and compassion, showing us that we can't always see at the time what will be meaningful in our lives. —Gwen Vredevoogd, Marymount Univ. Libs., Arlington, VA
Library Journal

[McDermott] follows seven decades of a Brooklyn woman's modest life to create one of the author's most trenchant explorations into the heart and soul of the 20th-century Irish-American family.... Marie's straightforward narration is interrupted with occasional jumps back and forward in time that create both a sense of foreboding and continuity as well as a meditation on the nature of sorrow....McDermott's elegy to a vanished world.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Why does the memory of Pegeen resonate so profoundly for Marie? Is there a similar story from your youth that has had a lasting effect on your life?

2. What does Marie’s mother try to teach her about becoming a fulfilled woman? What exceptional qualities does Marie’s father possess? How does their marriage shape Marie’s vision of her future?

3. Discuss the novel’s Brooklyn neighborhood as if it were a character. What are its most colorful attributes? How is it transformed over the years while Marie grows up? Do its inhabitants support one another, or is their gossip judgmental? Think about their speculation over the gender of Dora Ryan’s spouse and Bill Corrigan’s frailties.

4. Why does Marie resist her mother’s attempts to urge her to adulthood, from how to read a recipe to the importance of finding a job?

5. How is Marie able to look past the tragic death of Mrs. Hanson and focus on the loveliness of Gerty and her baby sister, Durna? Throughout her life, what beauty does Marie find in mothering?

6. What is the role of fate versus free will in Someone? What did Gabe seek and find in religion? What truths about faith did he eventually learn to embrace?

7. What did Walter Hartnett ultimately get out of his time with Marie? Was she naïve to fall for him, or was he powerfully persuasive? What made Tom Commeford a good match for her?

8. What does Marie discover about life by working for Mr. Fagin?

9. Discuss the story of Margaret Tuohy. How was Marie affected by the bishop’s choice of elegant burial clothes for his sister? What did the experience show Marie about the role of the survivor?

10. As Gabe tells the story of the woman at his first parish who bought mints before attending church each week, what is revealed about the importance of avoiding assumptions? How do perceptions and misperceptions shape the novel’s storyline?

11. What is the effect of the novel’s first-person narration? As Marie narrates her life, what changes do you notice in her view of the world—literal ones, as she endures eye surgeries, and symbolic ones?

12. Discuss Marie’s relationship with her own children. What does she do differently from her parents? What traditions does she carry on? How does McDermott capture the revelations that life and loss bring?

13. How does the depiction of Irish identity and family life in Someone compare to that in similar worlds you’ve explored in other novels by Alice McDermott?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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