News & Politics

Book Review: “Someone” by Alice McDermott

The author makes an ordinary life extraordinary.

Alice McDermott’s hypnotic, evocative novel, Someone, unfolds through a series of snapshots capturing the life of a woman living in Brooklyn before, during, and after the Second World War. The stories are lean and deliberate, and they appear to be randomly assembled, like snapshots pulled from an old shoebox. But as the exquisite images and poignant truths add up, we’re reminded that nothing happens in a McDermott novel by accident. This is a writer in complete control.

Our guide through Someone is Marie Commeford, a stubborn, thoughtful Brooklynite who leads a rather unremarkable life. Yes, she experiences love and loss, delight and disappointment, but there’s no great tragedy or undoing here. This novel, instead, turns mundanity into art.

McDermott perfectly renders a kitchen, for example, the “white enamel face of the oven door” and the “faint crescent moon of spilled baking soda” on its table. When Marie’s eyes fill with tears after a breakup, “the buildings and the streetlamps and the cars with their bright windshields, even the dark slips of other people, grow buoyant.” They “float past, clashing and bobbing, unmoored by the flood.”

A Bethesda resident who was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, the author beautifully captures her native city—its “car exhaust and heated asphalt,” its “garbage and incinerator fires.” She also describes its intimacy. Marie, as a young woman, sees “what an easy bond it was, to share a neighborhood as we had done, to share a time past.”

There’s a haunting quality to McDermott’s sentences, whose full weight can hit you several lines later. “Even in this heat,” Marie notices on a sweltering day, “there was the smell of industrial smoke in the thick air.” It takes a beat or two before you realize that there are neighborhood men—fathers, brothers, sons—suffering in that heat. Other lines deliver immediately. “The odor of blood,” Marie tells us after an almost deadly birth, “filled the crowded room like the underground scent of hollowed rock and cold steel.”

McDermott won the 1998 National Book Award for Charming Billy, and three of her novels were Pulitzer Prize finalists. It’s impossible to say what the future holds, but don’t be surprised if Someone meets a similar reception.

This article appears in the September 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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