Alice McDermott McDermott, Alice - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alice McDermott 1953–

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of McDermott's career through 1993.

In her fiction McDermott frequently emphasizes the subjectivity of perception and the mutability of memory. She explores these issues by focalizing her narratives through the perspectives of multiple characters and by presenting their interrelated stories in an anti-chronological fashion. Children particularly interest McDermott, and her novels often focus on the events that vitiate their innocence, inducting them into an adult awareness of loss and death.

Biographical Information

McDermott was born to a middle-class family and raised in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. She earned a B. A. from the State University of New York at Oswego, then worked briefly as a clerk-typist for a New York vanity publisher before enrolling in the graduate writing program at the University of New Hampshire. After completing the program, McDermott published several short stories in various women's magazines. Her first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, appeared in 1982. Following its publication, she began teaching creative writing at the University of California, San Diego, where she completed That Night (1987), which was nominated for a National Book Award. McDermott published her third novel, At Weddings and Wakes, in 1992. Currently, she teaches creative writing at American University.

Major Works

A Bigamist's Daughter concerns Elizabeth Connelly, the editor-in-chief of a New York vanity publishing house. Elizabeth becomes interested in her late parents' relationship when an author, Tupper Daniels, approaches her with a stalled manuscript celebrating the joys a bigamist brings to his scattered wives. The two become lovers, and as Tupper solicits Elizabeth's knowledge of her family history, he reworks it into his novel. Over the course of the story, it becomes apparent that Elizabeth's romantic expectations and the nature of her relationship with Tupper have been shaped by her perennially absent father, whom she suspects was a bigamist, and by a recent affair with a married man. The novel's third-person narrative is periodically interrupted by first-person passages in which Elizabeth recalls the sustained excitement she and her mother shared while waiting, respectively, for father and husband to return. That Night resembles A Bigamist's Daughter in that it, too, undermines conventional romanticism. Set in a lower-middle-class Long Island suburb during the early 1960s, McDermott's second novel opens with a description of the night in question, when the narrator, then a ten-year-old girl, witnesses the pivotal event of the novel. Rick, a teenage underachiever, and his friends lay siege to his girlfriend Sheryl's house, demanding to see her without realizing that she is pregnant and has been sent to stay with relatives in Ohio. Brandishing snow shovels and other "weapons," the neighborhood fathers confront the young mob; in the clumsy fight that follows, they vanquish Rick and his friends. As the novel unfolds, touching on events preceding and ensuing from this melee, the narrator reveals that she has long cherished romantic images of Sheryl and Rick. Moreover, she discloses that, like her, both have gone on to lead mundane adult lives which refute their—and her—adolescent belief in love's ability to triumph over adverse circumstances. At Weddings and Wakes, again set during the early 1960s, is also focalized largely through children to suggest how experience dispels innocence. Although the three Dailey children live on Long Island, their mother, Lucy Towne Dailey, frequently takes them to visit her widowed stepmother and three unmarried sisters in Brooklyn. The bulk of the novel's events occur in the Townes' dark, oppressively-furnished Brooklyn apartment, where the children observe their female relatives' melancholic commitment to remembering the dead and the departed. Because of the regularity of their visits, they also witness their Aunt May's long courtship, joyous wedding, and sudden death—events that catalyze their mature understanding of mortality and loss. Due to the third-person narrator's revelation early in the novel that May will die four days after her long-awaited nuptials, readers experience the wedding preparations with a mournful foreknowledge which intensifies McDermott's message that death permeates life.

Critical Reception

A Bigamist's Daughter received unusually widespread critical attention and high praise for a first novel. While several reviewers contended that the characters in this work are thinly developed, many praised McDermott's unflinching portrait of emotional and social isolation. Appreciating a similar lack of sentimentality in That Night, critics have commended McDermott's second novel's detailed evocation of life in lower-middle-class Long Island during the early 1960s and its realistic, generous characterization of Sheryl. Others, however, have questioned the relationship between McDermott's narrator and the thwarted teen lovers around whom That Night ostensibly revolves, wondering how such a young character could recall so much about the events in question as well as events she could not have witnessed. Like That Night, At Weddings and Wakes has been extolled for its rich period detail and for its insight into complex, often ambivalent, familial intimacies. Several critics have praised At Weddings and Wakes—indeed all of McDermott's works—as celebrating the ordinary. Many have observed her affinity for everyday language, noting that she favors complex syntactical patterns, constructing lengthy sentences in which short clauses proliferate to increasing emotional effect. Representative of the critics who applaud her for eschewing minimalism, David Leavitt has maintained that McDermott "gloriously rejects the notion that this betrayed and bankrupt world can be rendered only in the spare, impersonal prose that has become the standard of so much contemporary fiction." Instead, he has argued, she produces fiction "of almost 19th-century richness … [celebrating] the life of [the] suburban world at the same moment that [she] mourns that world's failures and disappointments."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Bigamist's Daughter (novel) 1982
That Night (novel) 1987
At Weddings and Wakes (novel) 1992

Anne Tyler (review date 21 February 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Bigamist's Daughter, in The New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1982, pp. 1, 28-9.

[An American novelist, short story writer, critic, and editor, Tyler won a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist (1985) and a Pulitzer Prize for her Breathing Lessons (1988). In the following, she offers a mixed assessment of A Bigamist's Daughter and maintains that, despite its occasionally fatuous characterization, the novel effectively demonstrates how childhood experiences determine adult expectations of love.]

The heroine of Alice McDermott's first novel [A Bigamist's Daughter] is a young woman who...

(The entire section is 983 words.)

Stephen Harvey (review date 23 February 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Bigamist's Daughter, in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 8, February 23, 1982, p. 43.

[In the following positive review of A Bigamist's Daughter, Harvey commends McDermott's refusal to sentimentalize her characters' loneliness.]

It's no disparagement of Alice McDermott's disturbing first novel [A Bigamist's Daughter] to note how much it resonates with the echo of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Young writers can't live in a literary vacuum; the best way they can render homage to the books they love is to find that strain in themselves which responds to those works, and channel it into something distinctively...

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Timothy J. Wood (review date April 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Bigamist's Daughter, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 2, April, 1982, p. 35.

[In the following review, Wood praises McDermott's matter-of-fact depiction of love in A Bigamist's Daughter, but maintains that her secondary characters are underdeveloped.]

[In A Bigamist's Daughter] Elizabeth Connelly, editor-in chief of Vista Books, a vanity press, is the bigamist's daughter. Her interest in her father's bigamy becomes agitated by the appearance of Tupper Daniels, a southern novelist who has written a book about a bigamist in his hometown. Daniels' book has no ending, without which Elizabeth has no sales contract....

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 28 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lost Illusions," in The New York Times, March 28, 1987, p. 10.

[An American critic, Kakutani is a regular contributor to The New York Times. In the following mixed review of That Night, Kakutani asserts that while McDermott's failure to clarify the relationship between her narrator and the events she recounts proves confusing, this weakness does not diminish the novel's elegiac appeal.]

The place is a Long Island suburb: one of those bedroom communities where the men go off to work each day, the women occupy themselves with neighborhood gossip and the kids pass the long summer evenings driving about in their cars and falling in love. The time is...

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David Leavitt (review date 19 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fathers, Daughters and Hoodlums," in The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, pp. 1, 29-30.

[Leavitt is an American novelist and short story writer. In the review below, he asserts that the "baroque richness of Ms. McDermott's sentences, the intellectual complexity of her moral vision, and the explicit emotion of her voice" distinguish That Night from other novels treating similar themes and incorporating suburban settings.]

Suburbia has never had a very good rep in American literature. That man-made purgatory of our modern culture, situated at some precarious point halfway between the city with its violent grittiness and the small town with its...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 26 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of That Night, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 26, 1987, p. 3.

[An American critic, Eder received a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and a 1987 citation for excellence from the National Book Critics Circle. In the following review of That Night, he lauds McDermott's fresh, detailed evocation of suburbia as well as the characterization of her female protagonist.]

The deceptively ordinary elements of That Night are put together with such undercover art and such vigorously individual results that the book seems to be an act of germination more than an act of fiction. Alice McDermott nurtures her suburban pair of adolescent...

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Rosellen Brown (review date May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Adolescent Angst," in Ms., Vol. XV, No. 11, May, 1987, pp. 17-18, 20.

[Brown is an American novelist, poet, and short story writer. In the excerpt below, she admires the tight construction of That Night as well as McDermott's poignant insistence on the inevitability of loss.]

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Karen Ahlefelder Watkins (review date 25 May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Streetcar Named Syosset," in The New Republic, Vol. 196, No. 21, May 25, 1987, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Watkins maintains that although McDermott's narrator often distracts readers from the characters whose story she is recounting, That Night powerfully represents the loss and longing that ensue from the aging process.]

Sherrryyyyy! Young Marlon Brando-like Rick yells outside his girlfriend Sheryl's house, filling the neighborhood with the sound of his cry and creating the scene that dominates Alice McDermott's second novel, That Night. "He stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs,...

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Whitney Balliett (review date 17 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Families," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, No. 26, August 17, 1987, pp. 71-2.

[In the excerpt below, Balliett, an American critic who frequently writes about jazz, praises McDermott's use of language and pacing in That Night.]

Novels were once panoramas, chronicles, labyrinths, whole subcontinents. A novel seemed to expand and multiply as it was read. But the movies have taken over those comprehensive tasks, and the novel has increasingly been made out of glimpses, incidents, small happenings. Its scope has become vertical rather than horizontal. Alice McDermott's That Night is centered on a single incident—a brief, dangerous, clumsy fight that takes...

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Robert Towers (review date 21 January 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "All-American Novels," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIV, Nos. 21-2, January 21, 1988, pp. 26-7.

[Towers is an American novelist. In the excerpt below, he commends the accuracy with which McDermott recreates a lower-middle-class Long Island town during the early 1960s as well as her focus on the ordinary in That Night, but he questions the book's merit as a contender for the National Book Award for Fiction.]

That Night, a second novel by Alice McDermott, was a runner-up for the [National Book Award for Fiction]. Its subject is the love affair between two teen-agers, Rick and Sheryl, and its setting is a lower-middle-class, mostly...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 24 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lessons of Loss Learned in Childhood," in The New York Times, March 24, 1992, p. C15.

[In the following review, Kakutani praises McDermott's use of children as narrators in At Weddings and Wakes and her thematic focus on loss.]

Alice McDermott's last novel, the critically acclaimed That Night, used the story of a doomed teen-age romance to create a resonant portrait of suburban life in the early 1960's: a lyrical and haunting portrait that left the reader with an indelible sense of life's precariousness, the ephemerality of youth and passion and hope.

The same sense of lost innocence and betrayed dreams lingers in the wake...

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Wendy Smith (essay date 30 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alice McDermott," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 16, March 30, 1992, pp. 85-6.

[An American editor, Smith is the author of the 1990 Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940. In the following essay, based in part on conversations with McDermott, she provides an overview of McDermott's career as well as her insights into the writing process.]

In 1979 a nervous graduate of the University of New Hampshire's writing program handed literary agent Harriet Wasserman's secretary a few short stories and 50 pages of an unfinished novel. Wasserman read them, called the writer and said, "I want you to give me everything you've got." Not too...

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Richard Eder (review date 12 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Letting a Little Air In," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 12, 1992, pp. 3, 7.

[In the following review, Eder appreciates McDermott's use of period detail and complex narration in At Weddings and Wakes.]

Get the subatomics right and you get the universe right; get the quarks in line and the quintessentials fall into place. So modern physics tells us, pausing periodically to wonder if it is true.

There are a few American writers who use the homely details of people's lives and behaviors that way. They get these details absolutely right, not for the purpose of description, or classification, or—as with some of the...

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Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 12 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Grief That Lasts Forever," in The New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1992, p. 3.

[Klinkenborg is an editor and nonfiction writer. In the following review, he provides a highly favorable assessment of At Weddings and Wakes.]

Alice McDermott's At Weddings and Wakes is her third novel in a decade. But after three books, her voice still has enough unfamiliarity to keep a reader slightly off balance. You're not quite sure what to expect of a McDermott novel, and this is her own doing. For although they share some thematic constants, each of Ms. McDermott's books—A Bigamist's Daughter, That Night and now At Weddings and Wakes—seems to...

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Paul Baumann (review date 22 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Imperishable Identities," in Commonweal, Vol. CXIX, No. 10, May 22, 1992, pp. 15-16.

[In the following review, Baumann commends McDermott's evocation of daily life and family ties in At Weddings and Wakes.]

Old Momma Towne, the widowed Irish matriarch of Alice McDermott's stunning new novel [At Weddings and Wakes], orchestrates the ceremonial gatherings of her four stepdaughters with a certain "papal dignity," the narrator tells us. She's a very Irish pope, to be sure. Of her daughter May's future husband's irritating habit of sending flowers, Momma Towne is as suspicious—and as unforgiving—as the proverbial Irish peasant. "Don't think I didn't...

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Gail Pool (review date August-September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Peculiar Realism," in The American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, August-September, 1993, p. 21.

[In the following review, Pool praises McDermott's vivid depiction of family closeness and the mounting emotional power of her narrative in At Weddings and Wakes as well as the novel's inherent realism.]

Critics have justly praised Alice McDermott as a young writer who has gone her own way. Even her first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, which, like so many first novels, never quite found its footing, was highly individual. But in her second novel, That Night, she came into her own, finding the peculiar and peculiarly effective brand of realism she...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bawer, Bruce. "Of Families and Foreigners." The Wall Street Journal CCXIX, No. 85 (30 April 1992): A10.

Comparative review of McDermott's At Weddings and Wakes and Francine Prose's Primitive People. Bawer acclaims At Weddings and Wakes as a poignant and lyrical reminder of death's inevitability.

Gingher, Marianne. "First Love and Early Sorrow." Washington Post Book World XVII, No. 15 (12 April 1987): 1, 3.

Favorable review of That Night. Praising McDermott's focus on death and love, Gingher argues that the narrator's "uncanny...

(The entire section is 169 words.)