Sunday, December 2, 2012

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott

"While the other little girls told themselves I will be a nun, I will be a nun, as Sister leaned over them at their desks, brushing their arms with her robes, placing her long, thin hand with its single gold band on their desks, Maryanne whispered instead, "I have the saddest thing in the world to tell you."

Her intention was not to emulate but to charm, to be admitted into the young woman's life as no other student or friend or other nun had ever been, to become for Sister Miriam Joseph the very wonder that the nun was for her." (57)

It's probably close to a month now since I first read Alice McDermott, and I still cannot believe I hadn't read her work before. Charming Billy and At Weddings and Wakes had been sitting on my book shelf for over a year (I got them cheap at a local thrift shop) before a friend's recommendation finally prompted me to pick them up. 

This may seem like a technical point, but for the reader and writer I am, it's everything: What this woman can do with point of view! It's stunning. I read this book slowly, with so much pleasure, and when I was finished, I wanted immediately to read it again. 

The first section is a seamless collective memory told in present tense, like a dream whose immediate impact we are trying to recall through re-creation. A mother takes two sisters and a brother to their grandmother and aunt's house in Brooklyn on summer days. There are the various bus and subway rides, the transformation of scenery as they move through space, there is the city. There is the top-floor apartment, their mother's complaints, the grandmother who was the sister of their mother's mother who raised their mother and aunts when her sister died. Their aunts have their own sorrows and joys: one a former nun who indulges them; one a tragic drinker with debilitating skin problems; one an executive secretary who reads the most boring magazines in the world. We discover this family as the youngest members discover it. The later sections unfurl to reveal the beautifully rendered experience of each individual member of the family as they grieve and grow and love one another with heart-wrenching imperfection. 

As the youngest daughter, Maryanne, hopes to be the same kind of wonder for her teacher that her teacher is for her, McDermott makes every human soul in this novel a wonder for her readers. 

A pretty wedding photo contemporary with the novel's setting

I've been reading Lydia Davis's translation of Swann's Way and can't resist sharing a little excerpt. There's a surfeit of them!

With all Proust's talk of sleep, I found myself lying in bed amazed that we manage all our lives to fall asleep in different places, in entirely changed situations, worlds away from where we're born, without much bewilderment at all. This is what he has to say about how we manage it: 

"Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable." (8)

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