Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

It seems pretty obvious to say that your family shapes you, that your experiences make you who you turn out to be. As obvious as it sounds, it is true. But people react to their same circumstances, their same raising, the same major events in their lives in very different ways because there are also things that are hard wired into us, that are coded on our genes, that have nothing to do with nurture and everything to do with nature. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is the story of two families, and more specifically, two children of these families, and how their lives and who they become depends so greatly on a shared tragedy.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are rookie NYC cops and partners for a brief time. Each is young and starting out in similar circumstances so it's not entirely surprising when they each move to the suburbs and end up as next door neighbors. Lena Gleeson tries to befriend Anne Stanhope but Anne keeps her at arms length, even after the Gleeson's third daughter, Kate, and the Stanhope's son, Peter, are born within six months of each other. The two families could not be more different and Anne is unhappy about Peter's growing friendship with Kate but the two have a bond that cannot be broken by something as weak as parental disapproval.  Lena worries about their friendship as well, but for entirely different reasons than Anne does.  And eventually their friendship starts to morph into a tentative something more until one night something happens that shatters both families.

Spanning four decades, this is a novel about life trajectories and intersections, mental illness, alcoholism, desertion, and forgiveness. The beginning of the story gives some insight into the Gleeson and Stanhope families but the narrative only focuses on the inside of the Gleeson family, leaving Peter to share (or hide) the incomplete inner workings of his own family with Kate.  The change in character focus illuminates Francis, Lena, Kate, and Peter, but leaves Brian and Anne mostly as shadowy ciphers.  The bulk of the story follows Peter and Kate in the years after they were neighbors and the impact their youthful relationship and their shared tragedy had in shaping them and their futures. There was a lot going on in the novel and quite a few issues touched on within these two families, but chief among them was forgiveness and its price. The book was a slow read and unhappiness leached out of many of the characters giving it a depressed tone most of the way through although there was ultimately some redemption, some sense of overcoming and acceptance. Keane handles the tension of the novel well, keeping it rising, even after the event that drives the latter two thirds of the book.  There is a measure of predictability here but the characters are more the focus than the plot, except in the one catastrophic instance.  Fans of character driven, family dysfunction novels will find much to satisfy them here.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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