Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mary After All: Jersey City in the Spotlight

I got a copy of Mary After All because I live in Jersey City, where the novel is set; it rose to the top of my pile because, well, it’s fun to read books set in your neighborhood. Some of the novel takes place just blocks from our apartment—forty years ago, but still. Still, you don’t have to be looking for hometown trivia to enjoy this book.

Mary is a smart, beautiful Italian-American girl, a teenager in the early sixties, who knows the value of her beauty—it can help her get a handsome boyfriend—and can’t quite figure out the point of her intelligence. Her mother, once beautiful but very ill, urges college, but with no college-educated people around and no clear sense of the “point” of college, Mary skips down to the Jersey Shore one summer, meets a cute boy, 23, and gets married right out of high school. Soon, she’s in her early twenties with two little children and an angry, absentee husband who, when he is home, is emotionally abusive. She raises her sons while caring for her ailing mom who, like Mary, has a distant husband. He’s carrying on with a check-out girl from ShopRite. Still, Mary’s lot need not have been so hard had she not been so rash in marrying at seventeen. As her Aunt Dot says, after a long, long review of all the ways in which life for women can be burdensome, what with all the expectations of caretaking, “This—this you got into yourself.”

This comes at the end of a really lovely, long, familiar conversation. Half-listening, Mary thinks about people like Aunt Dot, people who talk all the time, who tell the same story over and over without ever tiring of it until “one day, out of the blue, the story changes” and you realize that “there’s a point, maybe, too.”

This lovely novel is all about voice and Mary’s voice is wonderful. It’s terrific and interesting to see the sixties through her eyes: to see her passing interest in race relations, in the deterioration of Jersey City, in the fringes of organized crime that involve her male relatives, in real estate and fashion. Occasionally I’d stop to think about how cool and interesting it was that a young man could so effectively channel this voice from his mother’s generation: the time and sex switch is hard to do. But mostly it’s so well done that I just listened to Mary, thinking back on her life, reflecting on how she got into “this” and how she pulled herself out of it.

If you’d like to hear more about Mary or Bill Gordon, pop over to Wendi’s place. The Happy Booker got him to program an iPod and his choices give you a little more flavor of the novel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Ann,

I was googling to find shades of praise contact info and came on your interesting intersection of interests--can you help me--DYING to sing in nola..