'Someone' by Alice McDermott: Join the Catholic Book Club discussion

The word “someone” is indefinite and ordinary. It is a word that stands in for or anticipates another more vivid concept. It almost always denotes a person: “Someone will pick me up.” “Someone will know how to get there.” It is a subtle word that carries a great deal of meaning. Someone is the title of Alice McDermott’s new novel that tells the life of someone whose life is indefinite, ordinary, uncertain, but elegant and rich with meaning. It is the story of woman’s life—someone named Marie. The narrative is structured in much the same way the most intricate lace holds together. There are lines of development and recollection that double back and fill out filigreed lace designs. Yet, the majority of the story is empty, emphasizing the beauty of the story that is given—how fragile and subtle someone’s life is. How indefinite and ordinary and beautiful anyone’s life can be, if there is someone, anyone with whom one can share it.

The Catholic Book Club’s selection for November is a novel that is much more explicitly Catholic than the novels and stories it has selected in a long time. McDermott’s novel is situated in Brooklyn in the ‘30’s and 40’s. McDermott offers her readers a world that is quite familiar, even if it has long since disappeared. It is the story of a daughter, a mother, a wife, a myopic young woman who loves her family dearly. Her family is good. They are witty and honest and fiercely loving. Marie’s story is essentially about the fierce need inside us all to have someone —not to possess or manipulate, but someone to whom one can give love.

Toward the end of the novel, Marie recalls her thoughts at a moment after the birth of her first child. She nearly died after giving birth, and, in her brush with death, her family erupts with love, anger and sadness at the thought of losing her. Marie survives. After several weeks of convalescence, she returns to her husband and decides to take a risk. Her thoughts arise in her this way:

It was not that my life was less valuable to me now that I had glimpsed what it would be like to lose it. My love for the child asleep in the crib, the child’s need for me, for my vigilance, had made my life valuable in a way that even the most abundantly offered love, my parent’s, my brother’s, even Tom’s, had failed to do. Love was required of me now—to be given, not merely to be sought and returned. My presence on earth was never more urgently needed. And yet even the certainty of that fact seemed reason to throw away caution, not to heed it (192).

As ordinary as it is, loving someone is complicated business. One learns much about love from McDermott’s story as well as the consequence of loneliness. Nearly half way through the novel, Marie’s first love dumps her cruelly. As he departs from her coldly, she asks aloud, “Who’s going to love me?” The boy she loved responds, “Someone…Someone will.”

Quite simply, the novel is beautiful. It is Catholic and humane and open to transcendence. It recognizes sin and failure and distinguishes the two. It portrays ordinary human suffering and pain thoughtfully. It has wit and surprise. But, most of all, you will recognize in it those you love or those you have loved and your memory will double back to the times in your life when you have been with them—when you simply enjoyed their presence.

The first several pages will charm you. Marie, at seven years old, encounters her neighbor as see awaits her father’s return from work. The neighbor is an awkward girl with a tendency to fall and forget. She is half Irish and Syrian, homely but confident in the love of her own family. The neighbor recounts her falling in the subway on her way home. She tells Marie of the handsome man who helped her up off floor. She concludes the tale saying, “There’s always someone nice.”

Please, take a look at Alice McDermott’s novel. When you do, please consider the following questions. I think this story will spark some rich discussion. Please, contribute in any way you wish by considering these questions or offering questions or comments of your own.

1. Is the world of Someone familiar to you? Did it provoke rich recognition in you?

2. What do you think of Marie? What didn’t she tell us? Is she really as willful and bold as she describes herself to be?

3. Does Marie have faith or hope? Others in her life certainly do. Does she?

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Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 10 months ago
I found the book on the "NEW BOOKS" shelves in my local library. I am looking forward to participating in the discussion soon.
Sara Damewood
3 years 9 months ago
I've read about 1/3 of it. Since I haven't read fiction for a few years, it didn't come easy to me at first. I found myself skimming... until Marie put extra baking soda in her bread. Now I'm hooked. I'm praying she doesn't marry Walter. So, to answer part of question #2, I think she is really as willful and bold as she describes herself to be... and that is fascinating me. I'll be back later if y'all are!
Sara Damewood
3 years 9 months ago
The last paragraph of the first chapter gave me goosebumps!
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 9 months ago
I read this book awhile back and though I enjoyed it, it didn't stay with me. I don't find myself reflecting on it or remembering it. But now that you mention it … Yes, I recognized myself in Marie. I liked the attention to ordinariness that was given to the characters and the situations. This is life as I experience it: nuns and women who get together to talk things over (gossip, maybe), deaths in the community (neighborhood), food, walks, a snagged stocking. Marie felt herself to be willful and bold, but I saw her more as a shy (thinking about the way she couldn't look straight on at people as she waited for her father to return home), and somewhat reluctant. More of a follower of others. The way she was ready to marry Walter without much thought of her own direction or need. Her inner willfulness and boldness was an antidote to this outer reluctance. Marie lives her faith and hope with honesty in how she is. In fact, she rebels against the piety of others (her brother) but in a way that is not preachy or "corrective" (to him), merely by being who she is. That is her ultimate gift to others.
Sara Damewood
3 years 9 months ago
I do understand your point about Marie's "shy" nature and her lack of thought (at times) to her own direction or need. She really is a very complex person; isn't she? I was struck by her bucking tradition: refusing to learn to cook and refusing to accept her physician's directive to not have more children.
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 9 months ago
"THE SACRAMENT of the PRESENT MOMENT" Alice McDermott, the author, through her main character Marie and other characters, is CAPTURING for us the Sacrament of the Present Moment , the HERE and NOW, as described by Jean-pierre De Caussade in the book "Abandonment to Divine Providence". Is Marie willful? Obstinate? Maybe in an adolescent way in the baking of the bread scene. When she is in the hospital in labor having a caesarian section by an insensitive doctor, she seems in total abandonment to me. Her posture is like "Be Still and KNOW that I am God".....she figures there is nothing she can do so she totally lets go and puts herself in God's hands despite the limitations of the skills of the doctors and nurses attending to her. Even though Marie overhears the nurses denigrating the butchery of the surgeon, she in no way calls out or rants or raves hysterically demanding another doctor, a second opinion, or a lawyer to sue the hospital and the doctor. In recovery outside of the hospital, she seems full of FAITH and HOPE. The surgeon tells her NEVER to have another child. Yet, its not too long after she is starting to heal that Tom and Marie embark on another child. This seems to me the epitome of FAITH and HOPE. Faith that God will take care of her and her new baby and the one yet to come. HOPE that everything will work out fine and babies and mother will all be fine as well as Dad too. The book seems to me to be a whole series of "Sacraments of the Present Moment " described by the author. "Someone nice" always comes along to pick up the fallen and make things turn out all right. That "SOMEONE" is none other than JESUS CHRIST Himself. Amen.
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 9 months ago
Kevin: I just re-read the section where Walter dumps Marie. Marie goes home in tears and her brother Gabe takes her out for a walk and they end up at a park. As they arise to return home from their park bench, Marie asks her brother Gabe, "Who will love me now?".....It is GABE her brother that answers, "SOMEONE, Someone will"....in your description above you have Walter saying that. Walter does not have the compassion or empathy to say that. Gabe, her brother, and a priest who has probably heard some confessions in his brief time as a priest knows that SOMEONE will love Marie: Here is your description:
As ordinary as it is, loving someone is complicated business. One learns much about love from McDermott’s story as well as the consequence of loneliness. Nearly half way through the novel, Marie’s first love dumps her cruelly. As he departs from her coldly, she asks aloud, “Who’s going to love me?” The boy she loved responds, “Someone…Someone will.”
Sara Damewood
3 years 9 months ago
I thought of that "Someone" as God. That's what kept me reading this novel!
Kevin Spinale
3 years 8 months ago
Mr. Di Liddo, You are quite right that the speaker is Gabe - a tremendously complicated character, but a genuinely good man. He does much to comfort his young sister. He is sensitive to a fault. Ironically, it is one of Gabe's parishioners who becomes the someone for Marie.
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 9 months ago
It is so IRONIC that Marie ends up working for the Brooklyn undertaker, Fagin, in his funeral parlor. She ends up working there for 10 years! Its very ironic because as Fagin the undertaker takes pains to explain during Marie's job interview he is very upfront about stating that he needs Marie for her beauty, her sexuality and her gender. A wise businessman, Fagin knows that male family members of a deceased woman or girl will wonder about only men handling the deceased's body in preparation for burial and be suspicious of men handling a woman's body. Fagin wisely removes this suspicion without words through the person of Marie in her presence with family members of the deceased. Ironic because Marie views herself as plain, simple, not attractive when in fact it is the power of her presence as a female that is integral to Fagin's undertaking business. It is an interesting little twist as well that McDermott has the character Fagin with a complete set of Charles Dickens' books in his office given his name comes from "Oliver Twist" .
Sara Damewood
3 years 9 months ago
It's ironic, too, because Marie was so much about life!
Sara Damewood
3 years 9 months ago
I wonder about the "Oliver Twist" symbolism. Any thoughts about that?
Sara Damewood
3 years 9 months ago
I finally finished this book last night. Part of why it took me so long was re-reading over-and-over the parts that were poetic. I thought McDermott was masterful in how she transitioned between prose and poetry. I don't know much about literary forms, but I could tell that her style changed throughout the book. It was like her dream at the end, which seemed so mystical to me. After the "Someone" comment at the end of the first chapter, I was sure she was on her way to a mystical experience with God. After finishing the book, I was puzzled. Then, after googling "sparrows" in the Bible, I realized that (of course) she had a lifetime of encounters with God. That's what she rarely told us about until that dream/prayer experience at the end; you think? It was so Ignatian. :-)
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 9 months ago
Sara, it took me a great deal of time to get through this book as well and I re-read much of it more than once as well. I must admit that the end and the detailed descriptions of the curtains, the dust on the floor, the light on the wall, the scent of the basement and all those seemingly mundane physical details got the best of me as I shouted "enough already with the shape of the light coming through the windows". What was with the tennis balls hanging down in the car port?
Sara Damewood
3 years 8 months ago
Not sure about the tennis balls, Andrew. I almost want to go back and look at that. I'm sure there's some deep symbolism!

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