Alice McDermott: Someone (2013)


Someone begins on the stoop of a Brooklyn apartment building where Marie is waiting for her father to come home from work. It is the 1920s and in her Irish-American enclave the stories of her neighbours unfold before her short-sighted eyes. There is war-blinded Billy Corrigan and foolish, ill-fated Pegeen – and her parents’ legendary Syrian-Irish marriage – the terrifying Big Lucy, and the ever-present Sisters of Charity from the convent down the road.

As the years pass Marie’s own history plays out against the backdrop of a changing world. Her older brother Gabe leaves for the seminary to study for the priesthood, his faith destined to be tested to breaking point. Marie experiences first love – and first heartbreak – marriage and motherhood, and discovers how time can reveal us all to be fools and dreamers, blinded in one way or another by hope, loss or the exigencies of life and love.

It took a while until the title Someone of Alice McDermott’s latest novel made any sense, but once it did, I thought it was a brilliant choice. It refers to the narrator, Marie, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Irish immigrants, an unremarkable woman whose life story becomes meaningful because it is so universal. She is just “someone”, nobody special, just a woman who was born in the 20s, has experienced the aftermath of WWII, first love, work for an undertaker, marriage, her fist child, loss, grief and finally old age. It’s a mix of intense joy and pain told in delicately evocative scenes, in which every detail is rendered with a lot of care. Some say Philip Roth is the master of writing scenes. Alice McDermott maybe his female counterpart.

“Someone” also refers to other people in the book. One girl says, that there is always someone kind somewhere and when Marie, after her first heartbreak, asks her brother Gabe if she will ever find love, he tells her that someone will love her one day.

Someone isn’t told chronologically. It moves back and forth in time, picking the most important moments of Marie’s life. If it wasn’t for the writing it wouldn’t be as impressive as it is, but Alice McDermott is a writer you could read simply for her craft.

While reading I was wondering how this book that is so deeply rooted in Brooklyn would compare to Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn. Just like it is the story of one woman’s life, it’s also the story of the changes Brooklyn undergoes. The way Marie’s neighbourhood is described makes you think much more of village life than life in a big city, but then again, that’s typical of the largest cities, in which some inhabitants never venture any future than their neighbourhood. Marie is particularly attached to Brooklyn. Unlike her brother Gabe she never wanted to leave or even work anywhere else. That’s why she comes to work for an undertaker, a job she’s wary of at first. It proves to be an opportunity to learn a lot about life and loss.

Since this novel is told entirely in elaborate scenes, one more wonderful than the next, I couldn’t even pick a favourite. I loved how they were descriptive and at the same time full of hidden meanings and allusions.

It’s one of those books, I’ll read again, some day, just to see, once again, how she did it, how she captured the tiny gestures of people, the way they hold themselves, the way they speak and betray their feelings in doing so.

But I didn’t only love it for the craft. I loved it for its themes – birth, marriage, family, religion, faith, too many to name them all –  and for its quiet gentleness, the belief in kindness and the many characters who all hope for a fulfilled life, but face as much disappoinment as joy and happiness. And I loved it for some lovely insighst like this one on sleep.

All the thought and all the worry, all the faith and philosophy, the paintings  and the stories and the poems, all the whatnot, gone into the study on heaven and hell, and yet so little wonder applied to the sinking into sleep. Falling asleep. All the prayers I had said before bed throughout my life, all the prayers I had made my children say – Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be – the Confiteor if some transgression had taken place – missed the mark entirely. It was grace, the simple prayer before meals, that we should have been murmuring into our clasped hands at the end of the day: Bless us, oh Lord, and this thy gift, which we are about to receive.

I’d love to read another of her novels. Does anyone have suggestions?

29 thoughts on “Alice McDermott: Someone (2013)

    • I think that’s the way we think about our life. At least I do. I don’t think about it chronologically but one memory leads to another.
      I’d love to hear what you think of her and if she’d remind you of Philip Roth as well. Just for the way she writes scenes.

    • No I haven’t and have totally forgotten about it although I always meant to read it. Thanks for mentioning it. It would be great to make a “set in Brooklyn” list.

  1. I was so happy to see a review of this as I very much want to read it, and so happy that you were the one reviewing it! I am a huge fan of Alice McDermott and have enjoyed everything of hers I’ve ever read. You are quite right that she’s an author you can read for the sheer craft of what she does.

    • I’m so glad to hear you’d recommend her other books as well. It was Danielle’s review in summer which made me aware of her but I wasn’t prepared for the quality of her writing. It’s amazing.

  2. Beautiful review, Caroline! I have heard of Alice McDermott, but haven’t read any of her books. So wonderful to know that ‘Someone’ is so beautiful! I am guessing from your review, that this might your favourite book of the year 🙂 I totally loved this sentence from your review – “It’s a mix of intense joy and pain told in delicately evocative scenes, in which every detail is rendered with a lot of care”! I want to read this book, just because of that sentence 🙂 Thanks for reviewing this book and glad to know that you liked it so much.

    • Thanks, Vishy. She’ll make the best of, that’s for sure. 🙂 It’s such a pleasure to read well-crafted books and I’d say she’s one of the best scene writers I’ve ever encountered. But I liked what she chose to tell this woman’s story.
      I’m going to order another one soon. I’m pretty sure you would like her as well. One thing I liked and didn’t mention is the way she captures light. That’s difficult in novels. But you can really see the angle at which the light falls on something.

  3. Like Vishy I’ve heard of her but haven’t read her. It does sound very good. I was reminded too of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger which as you may recall I reviewed a while back at mine – if you still haven’t read it then I think it would make a great companion piece to this. Meanwhile, I’m off to see if this is available on kindle.

    • Oof. It is available on kindle but as it’s still in hardback it costs over ten quid. Suggestions from your other blog-followers for good alternative McDermott’s to check out gratefully accepted.

      • I received a book voucher not too long ago or I would have hesitated as well. I must have paid even more for the hardback.
        I’ve ordered After This and the one Danielle mentions At Weddings and Wakes.
        I’m very curious to hear what you think of her.

  4. This sounds marvelous and I can’t wait to read it. I was eyeing it just recently but am trying to stick with my end of the year pile for now….I think I will start it over my winter break, though. It sounds a lot like At Weddings and Wakes–the style of storytelling and the ordinariness of the family and situations–I loved that book (and it will likely be one of my faves this year), so I suspect I will love this one, too. I think she is a highly underrated writer. So glad you liked this, it makes me even more eager to read it!

    • I have yu to thank for the discovery. I might not have picked it up at the bookshop if you hadn’t written about het.
      Judging from the comments I’d say she really is underrated, which is odd. I guess because the scope of her novels is small and intimate but the way she writes is amazing.
      I’ve ordered two more now and could really imagine she’d be one of those I’d love to read everything of.
      I hope you will like this. It’s shorter than the others.

  5. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  6. I love what you wrote about “Someone.” I read it once, then read a insightful review by
    soeone on the internet, and went back, just a couple of weeks later, and reread the whole
    bok again, and got more out of it the second time. Many people feel the ending is
    overquick, abrupt, but I think if the last section (about Gabe’s return) is read closely,
    carefully, the meanings are all there. And McDermott’s style is as polished as if she’d
    spent these seven years making diamond jewelry–just gorgeous, every word precise
    and beautiful. Thanks for hour review.

    • Thanks, Robert. Glad to hear you felt the same about this book. I’ll read more of her work soon. She’s a fantastic writer.
      I never felt she rushed anything. She takes a lot of time with small details and scenses, te overall timeline is condensed in this smaller parts. I like that.
      As you write, when you read her closely – everything is there.

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