At Weddings and Wakes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Alice McDermott’s poetic meditation on the Townes and the Daileys, and extended Irish Catholic family living in Brooklyn and on Long Island, centers on two tragic events, one past and one present. In the first, Annie Towne dies shortly after bearing her fourth daughter; her widower, married shortly thereafter to her sister Mary, dies while she is pregnant with a son who becomes an alcoholic. In the second, Annie’s daughter May dies suddenly four days after her marriage to mailman Fred Castle.

As the novel opens, May’s sister Lucy Dailey is on her way from her home in Long Island with her three children to visit her aunt and sisters in Brooklyn. The aunt has never become reconciled to the tragedies in her life, and she has passed her anger on to her daughters, particularly Lucy, who is deeply discontent with her marriage. To the children these visits, regular summer events, amount to slow torture.

The story follows the Daileys to a vacation cottage on Long Island, where it is revealed that May, formerly a nun, has married after a midlife courtship. Her death is revealed a few pages later, and it colors every subsequent event; the scenes taking place before her death, in particular her richly depicted wedding, are imbued with melancholy irony. The novel circles through the seasons, moving backward and forward in time; the lives of the remaining sisters and aunt circle as well, as they helplessly repeat the destructive patterns of the past.

The most problematic element of this novel is the death of May, which seems arbitrarily imposed by the author: The one member of the family capable of change—potentially of sustaining a loving relationship—is denied her chance out of sheer bad luck. But this formidably crafted novel reveals real literary intelligence and seriousness of purpose, both rare and welcome.


Baumann, Paul. “Imperishable Identities.” Commonweal 119 (May 22, 1992):...

(The entire section is 807 words.)