Short, intense and emotionally precise, “Straying” is Molly McCloskey’s first novel to be published in this country. It is the story of Alice, an American, looking back some 25 years to the late 1980s, when, at 24, she had moved to Sligo in the west of Ireland. After spending a summer tending bar and generally frittering away time, she met and eventually married Eddie, a solid, reliable, loving man — though with an Irishman’s reticence about expressing his feelings. The two spend some reasonably happy years together, even as Alice has no particular idea of what her life is for, and is vaguely curious about what shape it might take.

In a moment of heedlessness, she plunges into an affair with an impoverished, somewhat hard-to-take playwright. McCloskey draws the stages and character of this adulterous relationship with sordid exactitude: the reckless elation, the fantasy of an alternate life, the lying, betrayal and ruinous obliviousness to the eyes all around gathering it all in. This is rural Ireland, after all, and Alice, a stranger, “still didn’t get it, how much was observed but unspoken, and how little relation whatever did get said bore to what was known or surmised.”

She sees Ireland with “the foreigner’s eye — acquisitive, ignorant, romantic,” a description that could as easily be one of her character. Restless, ungrounded, with an inchoate sense of herself, she does not feel that what she does, including this affair, is entirely real. “It was as though I thought I could forget my life, collapse it like a piece of furniture and stow it for the season.” In the end, wrenchingly depicted, the interlude destroys her marriage.

It becomes gradually clear that while Alice wonders at the incidental nature of her life — its course seemingly shaped by chance — her outlook owes much to her origins. Her mother never married her father, a man with whom she could not see spending her life, but whose absence was a defining presence in Alice’s childhood, leaving her feeling deficient and “insufficiently anchored.”

She absorbed the idea that married life would complete her and, indeed, would reassure her mother, whom she loves dearly, and whose death she is mourning when we meet her. Such is McCloskey’s powerful control of the novel and meticulous, economical observations, that in little more than 200 pages she can show the exact nature of a life not wasted, but not fully inhabited — Alice ends up with no settled home as an aid worker for refugees — as well as the character of one marriage, of an affair and, not least, of the transformation of Ireland herself.


Katherine A. Power, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Washington Post, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere. She lives in Massachusetts.

By: Molly McCloskey.
Publisher: Scribner, 215 pages, $24.