Courtney Sullivan's "Maine" is quite simply a terrific read. It's the story of three generations of the Irish-American Kelleher family, and more specifically four women and their relationships. Each of the four main characters are brilliantly drawn - there's something quite vile about each but you also sympathise with their plights - which is not an easy trick to pull off. It's touching, dysfunctional and often laugh out loud funny (I know that sounds like a cliche but it genuinely did make me laugh out loud on several occasions).
The matriarch is Alice, a bereaved woman, devoted to the Catholic church and wine in almost equal measure, both driven by the need to forget a painful incident in her past. Her relationship with her three children is strained and she's a difficult woman - elegant and charming one moment and cutting and spiteful the next. Her eldest daughter, Kathleen, is a recovering alcoholic who has fled as far as she can from the family home to live in California where she has gone all New Age and runs a worm farm producing "poop tea". Alice's son, Patrick, is married to Ann Marie whose emotional crutch is the drive to be the perfect, all-American Mom - although the reality is far from that. She is pure in deed if not in thought, fantasising about a relationship with her next door neighbour while designing perfect dolls houses. She's the outsider, as the only non-Kelleher in the story, but does more for Alice than any of the old lady's own children. Then there is Kathleen's daughter, Maggie who is probably the most sympathetic character. Her addiction is to bad relationships and the most recent has left her pregnant but single again.
The characterisation is superb - particularly of the women. If I have a slight reservation about the book it is that the men are less well drawn, but as this is really the story of the females, this is easily forgiven. The dialogue and thoughts of the women are brilliant - often vicious and cruel, with each knowing exactly what to say to bug the others as only families do. The ability to make the reader care about characters even when they behave atrociously is not easy to pull off.
Equally adept is Sullivan's ability to interweave the back-stories into the narrative.
The story is set around the Kelleher summer home in ... you don't really need me to tell you where it is, do you? ... and the story is so vividly told that you can almost smell the sea at times. It's one of those books where you feel you know the characters and where you are saddened at the end, not because of the ending but simply because it has ended. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's kind of a more readable Jonathan Franzen - and if that sounds like high praise, it is. But it's not all light prose, there's genuine depth and thoughtful issues about generational differences and faith, amongst other things, here.