Maine by Courtney Sullivan
Atlantic Books $36.99

I have to confess a prejudice against novels where the characters are continually lighting cigarettes and lifting drinks, and where the author continually tells you they're doing so. It happens a lot in this second fiction by dewily-beautiful Courtney Sullivan.

Three generations of the Kelleher family spend or prepare to spend summer in a beach house built on a hectare of pines, sand and rocks that one of their clan won in a bar-room bet.

There's Maggie, the 30-ish writer, pregnant and trying to decide the right time to tell her wrong boyfriend. There's Ann-Marie, frustrated and resentful of her in-law status; Kathleen the ex-drunk; Alice the denying drunk and keeper of A Dark Secret.

The narrative sweeps or staggers across six decades of lives at their seaside retreat, as bohemians yield to bankers and the outdoor showers where you could wash your hair while gazing at the stars yield to jacuzzis.


A few males flap past, but they're fleeting, feeble, "emotionally tone-deaf". It's the Kelleher women who run the house and the book. Eighty-three-year-old Alice is the most complex, fortified by a life of Catholicism, booze, and giving bad advice. Ann-Marie is the most engaging, fizzing with discontent and libido. Kathleen is the most tormented (and spectacularly slatternly). Maggie is the most improbable - I mean, a novelist totally unconcerned that she can't find anything for her novel?

They're all inflated beyond life-size: their actions are operatic; their reactions melodramatic. When they're not examining their own entrails, they're busy tying knots in others'.

It's a long book, and seems longer because of Sullivan's insistence on telling us so much. She's always there, nudging and pointing.

Okay, she points perceptively. She's good on family dynamics and deceptions; shows that there's function within dysfunction. Her characters change and grow, even if Alice can't stop re-using teabags and Kathleen never replaces the sheets. They make various forms of peace, with one another or with rabbits.

There are agreeable individual scenes. Vaunted tomato plants get trampled. So does a priest - nearly. A daughter becomes concerned because her mother appears to be having fun. There's poignancy as people try to recapture magic, or watch their kids grow up to become stockbrokers.

You'll be absorbed and aggravated, intrigued and irritated. You'll look forward to something slimmer and more significant.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.