Alice McDermott’s At Wedding and Wakes is subtle, very subtle. And quiet. With a healthy dose of nostalgia and a certain reverence for the bewildering emotions of childhood. The story belongs to almost every member of the Irish-Catholic Dailey Family – a grandmother, four sisters (Agnes, Veronica, May and Lucy), May’s fiancé, Lucy’s husband and their three children. Most of the story comes filtered through the collective eyes of these three children, although McDermott jumps point of view all the time, a way to give life to each and every character, no matter how small.
Veronica, for example, begins as a missing element, the sister living in the shadows when the children visit their grandmother. At first it seems that McDermott is content to let her stay that way – separate, faceless, silent. Until suddenly in the middle of the book her own story stands up and says, Pay Attention. It is a beautiful moment and resonates through the rest of the book every time Veronica silently steps across the page.
There isn’t anything resembling a plot in this novel, no real forward action, no single story to latch onto – but this isn’t a drawback. This book is for careful, quiet reading. Paying attention to the prose is reward enough. In many ways At Weddings and Wakes reads like a series of vignettes. Although series isn’t the right word because the different stories don’t move in a straight line, instead they loosely circle the death of May – an event that is never realized in the book but whose repercussions are hinted at and projected through glimpses of May’s final days.
One of the more interesting things that McDermott does in this novel is take liberties with the timeline in ways that should be unsettling but which never actually disturb the surface of the story. She has a way of jumping quickly forward from a particular moment and creating a memory out of something actually happening. It’s like she explodes that very moment in time, filling it with longer-term emotions and transforming it into something more complex and complicated than it could ever be on its own. That she does this so seamlessly is a fantastic testament to her skill as our narrator.
So what is At Weddings and Wakes about? On one level it’s about the mysteries of family dynamic – how we work against each other, hurt each other and yet still manage to cultivate love and duty in that difficult environment. On another, it’s about falling in love – a boy with a vocation, an older couple with the idea of happiness, a young girl with the tragic story of her aunt’s late marriage and early death. And on even another, it’s about collective story telling – the narratives and threads of existence that we pull and weave together to create who we are and how we want to remember our life.
At Weddings and Wakes was published in 1992. It is Alice McDermott’s third novel.
Next in line for my Reading the Author Challenge is McDermott’s Charming Billy which won the National Book Award in 1998.