Literary Love | Insight vs. Delight

MaineAdmittedly, I began reading Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan with a bit of trepidation because a reader had commented about it on my last book post, citing it as a book that had disappointed her. With her thoughts fresh in my mind, I did not set my sights high as I dove in to the first few pages – the varied reviews this book has on Goodreads offered a similar warning: I might not like this novel. Against all odds, I really enjoyed it – kind of couldn’t put it down. I’ve concluded though that it’s because Maine is the sort of book you have to enjoy for the insight it provides instead of delight it fails to deliver.

What do I mean by that? Well, sometimes we approach a book (or TV show for that matter) looking to escape. We want to be swept away by characters who we admire, whose lives we wish to have. We want to get to the last page and sigh, wondering if anyone’s real life is as fabulous as what we’ve just finished. That feeling is why I watched Gossip Girl and read books by authors like Meg Cabot – I want my imagination to be inspired by fanciful things…like macarons from Laduree for example.

I think a lot of people who set out to read this book were fooled by the cover: a woman reclining on a beach. That image seems to promise tales that chick lit tends to be known for – secret trysts on a warm, dark beach or extravagant lawn parties, all complete with a cute male character! Maine was not that, in any way. In fact, there were barely any developed male characters at all. It was filled with the real sorts of disappointments that are bound to crop up in people’s lives and the complications that emerge in any family. The truths it held were more important than the pleasantness of its fiction. Admittedly, its ending was kind of dumb, but that shouldn’t take away from the masterful character studies Sullivan achieves (a thought The New York Times and I shared).  The story Maine told was meant to offer insight, not delight. Maybe a perfect, happy ending would have strayed too far from that goal.

Maine speaks from the perspectives of four different women in the same family (grandmother, daughter-in-law, daughter, and granddaughter) but these gals are far from fun, cool, or perfect. They’re all kinds of dysfunctional, both stubborn and difficult in many cases. You may in fact find you don’t like any of them – but that’s sort of the point! As I mentioned in my own review on Goodreads (couldn’t resist!) I am over-the-moon pumped that my living grandma is nothing like the one in Maine. In that grandmother character though, I saw a lot of similarities to my deceased grandmother who (sorry Meme…) was pretty mean and stubborn. Reading this book helped me to think about her life differently. In a way, it helped me understand her more. I certainly wouldn’t read about these people to escape because in a lot of ways they hit pretty closely on several of my own Irish-Catholic family members who, like the characters in the book, are from the Boston area. It’s a good feeling though, once in a while, to come out of a novel feeling like you’ve discovered a little more about the way the world actually is, instead of what you’d like it to be.

Have you read anything similar – a book/show where you maybe didn’t like the characters but appreciated what you learned from them?


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