At Weddings and Wakes

Alice McDermott (A Bigamist’s Daughter and That Night) is so good a novelist she can make even argumentativeness as compelling a theme as adultery. Set mostly in Brooklyn during the early ’60s, her beautiful third novel is an Irish-American gothic, an agonizing postmortem on a family of four grown sisters whose anger and resentments are ”somehow prescribed, part of the daily and necessary schedule, merely the routine.”

At Weddings and Wakes is taken from a line of dialogue spoken, very late in the book, by a disaffected teenage niece: ”Aren’t you glad…you only have to see your relatives at weddings and wakes?” The Towne sisters’ tragedy, and their hell, is that they must see one another all the rest of the time, too.

The events of the story — a bland mid-life courtship, an interminable wedding reception, a vacation interrupted by a sudden death — matter far less than those in their past. The past supplies the drama, and the ghosts, and the poison that enervates lives, fuels quarrels, and limits possibilities.

Agnes, May, Lucy, and Veronica Towne were raised by their aunt, ”Momma” Towne — their mother’s sister — following her marriage to their widowed father. But Mr. Towne’s early death left her feeling cheated, caustically bitter. Ever after that tragedy, Momma — entombed in the same airless apartment where both her husband and her sister died — has insisted upon being regarded as a living martyr. Her conversations inevitably circle around to death and the inevitability of disappointment. Her untempered misery estranges her from her only son (who visits just once a year, at Christmas, to bring a box of Fanny Farmer chocolates) and holds her four stepdaughters fast: ”Too many women in too small a place, they would say later when they were making some effort to understand her; or, later still, too much repression, too much pity, too much bad luck. And then finally, convinced they’d hit the mark at last, too much drink.” Two of them never leave home, one returns eventually from a convent, and one marries and moves to Long Island, but feels compelled to return to Brooklyn twice a week ”to determine her own fate, to resolve each time her own unhappiness or indecision.”

Writing in an elliptical, almost languid prose, and telling her story with detachment and classic literary grace (and without the slightest nod toward the storytelling strategies of movies, a quality that makes her almost unique among American novelists), McDermott is at the top of her artistry here. Deftly shifting points of view and gliding smoothly through layers of time and grievance, she has created a family that’s both terrible in its oppressiveness and distinctive in its ruinous conviction ”that for any human being with any sense, any memory or foresight, every breath should be tinged with outrage.”

At Weddings and Wakes
  • Book