Sullivan and I are on the telephone to discuss her new novel, Maine (Knopf), but we're talking about her first book because I've wondered how the two narratives, both based around a group of four women, are connected. (Full disclosure: Sullivan and I are both alumna of Smith College, the school from which the main characters in Commencement graduate, and our conversation is peppered with shorthand references to our alma mater and its overtly feminist perspective.)
"Ours is the first generation to have all the opportunity in the world, but not know quite what to do with it," Sullivan said. "After I finished my first book, I heard Gloria Phelps speak on a panel and say that she was tired of hearing young women complain about choices. 'We never said choice would be the panacea!' she told us. That was a major sort of lightbulb moment for me."
In Commencement, all four characters were the same age, and Sullivan's challenge was "to make them all different enough without making them into caricatures." With Maine, she faced a new challenge: four female characters who were all very different-- but all related. "I wanted to get their voices right and make each of them authentic for her moment," Sullivan said.
However, there's a much bigger difference between Commencement and Maine than the identity of the characters, and it involves "the F-word"--"feminism." Sullivan explained, "The idea of feminism in Commencement is overt. The word appears a lot, and the women discuss how to take their ideals into the real world. In this book, the word 'feminism' never appears, but it's so much about the idea that the moment a woman comes into the world determines so much of her fate--and so much of what she will consider 'feminist.' "
Maine centers on the women of the Kelleher family, including 83-year-old matriarch Alice; her middle-aged divorced recovering alcoholic daughter, Kathleen; Kathleen's thirtysomething unmarried and pregnant daughter, Maggie; and Alice's perfectionist daughter-in-law, Ann Marie. Sullivan noted that feminism couldn't be more different for each of these characters. "When Alice was in her 20s, the only way she could really achieve independence was to move into a husband's home, while Maggie has been encouraged from the cradle to be independent and unfettered."
The biggest difference between the two books may be the result of an overheard discussion. As a teenager, Sullivan listened to her mother and several other women from her largely Irish-Catholic Boston suburb talking about their own mothers. "These women had all had 10 kids, even 15 kids in a couple of cases, and at some point, nearly every single one of them had gone to her priest to ask about family planning. You can guess the kinds of things they were told."
"When you're a writer, you collect conversations, and they stay with you. I remember thinking how strange it was that these celibate men had ever had the opportunity to tell women how and when they get to be mothers." Sullivan paused for breath. "The big-picture ideas are investigated in a much more personal way in Maine than they are in Commencement. Much of this book is about perception. It's about how the women view themselves, and each other. How do you respect and appreciate someone else's choices?"
Sullivan agrees that "someone else" is often male. "Men get forced into preconceived notions of masculinity just as we're forced into those of femininity. Breaking down these barriers is good for everyone." She pointed to the example of Ann Marie's inability to face her son's teenage predilection for porn. "When Ann Marie decides 'this is just how boys are,' it has consequences. Her son is later disgraced at work for looking at porn on his computer. The fact is, there's no one way that anyone is. The most important thing is to know someone's motivation and to talk honestly about what concerns us."
So are any of the characters in Maine getting it right? "Oh, I think Kathleen and her worm-farmer boyfriend are closer than anyone else. They're really getting to the truth of what life is, meaning what is my personal truth: they're not responding to someone else's choices, but finding their own passions and wishes and concerns."
It seems that, in her sophomore effort as a novelist, J. Courtney Sullivan is well on the road to accomplishing exactly that.
-- Bethanne Patrick