Someone: A Novel by Alice McDermott
Published in 2013
“Pegeen Chehab walked up from the subway in the evening light.”
Though she is the first character mentioned and plays an important part in the story, Pegeen Chehab is not the protagonist. Someone, by Alice McDermott, encompasses the events of an ordinary life. From a child playing among friends in the streets of Brooklyn, to a young woman working as the consoling angel of a funeral parlor and mother, we see how Marie’s life was formed and fashioned. Through intense imagery, strong prose, and memorable characters, Someone becomes far more specific in its splendor than its innocuous title suggests.
The story follows Marie, the daughter of an Irish-American family living in Brooklyn. The entire novel is a reflection on different periods of her life, and it skips around in time through a nonlinear structure. Each recollection is connected through a shared theme or topic; many of these revolve around death, the fragility of life, the pain of loss and the manic heights of happiness. There is a specific collection of memories during her time working for the undertaker where Marie hears all the gossip and stories about her deceased neighbors from the matrons of the area.
Marie describes her first intimacy and subsequent heartbreak with an honest, vulnerable quality to the recollections. She also touches on how someone that was barely an afterthought in her youth eventually became her husband and the father of her prized children. She embraces the continuities in temperament passed down from her mother to her, and eventually to her daughters. McDermott shows the spectrum of growth that one goes through as they age and how we gain perspective as we shift through our lives; some things that were once anathema to us become part of who we are.
Marie’s mother called her “ a bold piece” when she was a child because of how stubborn she was, and this continues throughout the story. She has a difficult first pregnancy and, despite the doctor warning her against having any more children, she throws caution to the wind and has three more. It is this, among other qualities, that endears Marie to the reader, especially after reading about the hardships in her life.
McDermott writes absolutely meticulous imagery. The sights, sounds, and smells of Marie’s life all come to the forefront of the prose, creating vivid scenes that stick with the reader and strengthen the references to them later in the novel. The funeral of her father is an integral point not only in her life, but that of the story and it comes back into play multiple times. While facing her father’s coffin, she recalls being lifted by kind hands; after interviewing to work with the undertaker, Mr. Fagin, she realizes that it was he who held her in that special moment. Her father’s death also affected her brother, Gabe, who gave him his last rights, which eventually led to his leaving the priesthood after a year in its service.
Someone is bookended by two events; the tragic death of Pegeen Chehab and Marie’s habit of waking her brother, Gabe, in the night seeking solace from a nightmare. This circling back to the beginning forms a comforting circle that wraps up the story in a satisfying conclusion. Someone is simultaneously specific in its events, yet general in its motifs and themes of life, death, love, loss, and pain. It was an absolute pleasure to read, and I definitely plan on seeking out McDermott’s other works in the future.
Verdict: 4 bold pieces out of 5
Recommended for: The empathetic, those who enjoy description, people who are close with their family, people who wish to be close with their family, fans of well-written prose, and those who enjoy nonlinear storytelling.
Not recommended for: The apathetic, those who dislike honest writing, people who don’t like stories, or those who only enjoy linear storytelling.