A tidy suburbia seen from above, in bright brushstrokes of blue and green: It doesn’t seem like a completely wild coincidence that the cover of Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes so heavily echoes that of Celeste Ng’s 2017 phenomenon Little Fires Everywhere.
Both probe the secrets and lies that thrum beneath the surface of small-town complacency. And both testify to the enduring truism of poet Philip Larkin’s famous lines “They f— you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do.” (Though to be fair, that couplet defines pretty much all so-called domestic fiction — and the entire business of therapy, too.)
In Ask, the setting is a placid commuter village north of Manhattan circa 1973, and the primary players are Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, both rookie beat cops in the NYPD, and their respective new brides, Lena and Anne. They’re neighbors if not exactly friends, but as each pair settles into marriage and parenthood, cracks begin to show.
Francis and Lena reign over a happy, rowdy house full of daughters; Brian and Anne’s windows are dark and quiet, and Anne doesn’t like their only son, Peter, playing with the youngest Gleeson girl, Kate. Anne doesn’t like a lot of things, actually — and when she’s agitated, bad things tend to follow. The events of one terrible morning change both families irrevocably, though calamity only strengthens the bond between Kate and Peter.
Keane (Fever) writes about mental illness and substance abuse with acute sensitivity, and her characters are consistently, authentically lived-in. But they can also feel like less than the sum of their struggles: A late flashback to Anne’s native Ireland offers an enticing but too-brief glimpse of the formative pain in her past; Peter works so hard to tamp down his own trauma that he becomes a sort of cipher. It all makes for a tale smartly and solidly told, without ever quite piercing the veil that separates the reader from the human puzzle pieces on the page. B+