Picks and Pans Review: At Weddings and Wakes
by Alice McDermott
Set in the 1950s and '60s, McDermott's extraordinary third novel chronicles three generations of an Irish-American family as seen through the often puzzled eyes of three siblings. Their world is narrow—bounded by innocence, Catholicism and frequent visits with their mother's three spinster sisters and their great-aunt, "Momma." Years earlier, Momma had married their grandfather when his wife, Annie (Momma's sister), had died in childbirth.
For the children, Momma's place in the household is, in a phrase repeated through the novel like part of a liturgy, "part of everything they knew." How she came to the United States, moved in with Annie and Annie's husband, Jack, how, subsequently, she cared for Annie's bereaved children and married Jack, who died as suddenly as his first wife. Part of everything the children know includes their aunts Veronica, who has a problem with alcohol; Agnes, a secretary and the most worldly of the sisters; and May, a former nun whose fate, revealed early, gives the novel much of its delicate pathos.
The events the author chronicles are often small—tedious visits to the aunts, a mailman's timorous courtship, a Christmas celebration where "the women seemed to pull the old grievances from kitchen drawers and rattling china cabinets...." Yet McDermott's pitch-perfect rendering and her rich prose give such moments an almost mythic quality. (Farrar Strauss Giroux, $20)
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