Nearly halfway through Alice McDermott’s seventh novel, a callously jilted teenager asks her brother “ ‘Who’s going to love me?’ ” His stalwart reply: “Someone. … Someone will.”
“Someone” is McDermott’s first novel in seven years and like most everything she writes, including “Charming Billy,” which won the National Book Award in 1998, it delves deeply into the human need for affirmation through love.
It’s a novel to be savored for the way it pries open the ordinariness of everyday life and finds within that banality the joys of being alive. It touches our hearts through desperate-for-love characters like McDermott’s heroine Marie, who as a young girl refuses to learn to cook or bake out of fear that once she can do these things, her mother, the family cook, will die.
Marie is 7 when “Someone” opens. It’s the end of the workday and she’s waiting on the stoop of her Brooklyn apartment building, hoping to catch a glimpse of her beloved father. She’s a shy, bespectacled girl who will spend her life, because of weak eyesight, struggling to see what’s in front of her. Failed insights will often deprive her of identifying her life’s direction.
Marie’s story and those of her brother Gabe, who enters the priesthood; Bill Corrigan, the blind World War I veteran who “umpires” the local stickball games; Walter Hartnett, the disabled local boy who breaks Marie’s heart, and Marie’s neighbor Pegeen Chehab, for whom a misstep changes things forever, are told in a nonlinear fashion fraught with jagged edges of relentless grief for lost love and loved ones. Occasionally, the seemingly endless emotional weight of their lives is lightened by new chances for happiness.
Death and mourning play a prominent role in the book’s Irish-centric setting. Marie is a “hostess” at the neighborhood funeral parlor. Through her work steering others through grief, we come to know the yearnings in her heart.
“Someone” also is very much about a mother’s love. Every day, the mother of Corrigan, the war vet, dresses him in a pressed suit and polished shoes. When her son dies in the war, another mother writes a 52-page letter to President Roosevelt describing her loss.
While all McDermott’s characters thrive within her beautifully sad and revelatory prose, some readers may find, because of the book’s maudlin tone, that their love for them grows slowly. But grow it will as McDermott demonstrates once again her uncanny understanding of the emotional resilience that love demands from all of us.
Carol Memmott’s reviews have appeared in USA Today and People magazine.