At Weddings and Wakes A Novel

Alice McDermott




Trade Paperback

224 Pages



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A Pulitzer Prize Finalist

Lucy Dailey leaves suburbia twice a week with her three children in tow, returning to the Brooklyn home where she grew up, and where her stepmother and unmarried sisters still live. The children quietly observe Aunt Veronica, who drowns her sorrows in drink. Aunt Agnes, a caustic career woman, and finally Aunt May, the ex-nun, blossoming with a late and unexpected love, dutifully absorbing the legacy of their less-than-perfect family. Alice McDermott beautifully evokes three generations of an Irish-American family in this "haunting and masterly work of literary art" (The Wall Street Journal).


Praise for At Weddings and Wakes

"As rendered through Ms. McDermott's rich, supple prose, and infused with her quiet emotional wisdom, the story of these three children and their family assumes a kind of mythic resonance: it becomes a parable about all families and all families' encounters with love, mortality, and sorrow."—The New York Times

"A brilliant, highly complex, extraordinary piece of fiction and a triumph for its author."—Chicago Tribune

"McDermott's novels can't be relegated to plot or thematic conceit. It is the sweep of her sentences, many of them as luxurious and sure of themselves as a cat stretching in the sun. And it is the remarkable microscopic attention to humanity—the private gestures and telltale routines that make us who we are."—The Boston Sunday Globe

"'You only see your relatives at weddings and wakes,' says a character in McDermott's delicately nuanced, elegiac and emotionally charged new novel (after That Night ), but the three Dailey children do not realize the significance of the remark until, three days after their beloved Aunt May's wedding, the family reassembles at her funeral. This latter occasion, alluded to throughout the narrative, is the only dramatic incident in this work—and it takes place offstage. Indeed, the story may seem too leisurely and uneventful, until, on completion, the reader experiences the catharsis that good literature provides. This meticulously observed evocation of a close-knit Irish Catholic family is seen through the children's eyes, registering the confusion and dawning knowledge which with youngsters try to understand adult relationships. Two sisters and a brother, they go twice a week with their mother from their home in Long Island to Brooklyn, where their mother's stepmother and three unmarried sisters live. Gradually the children comprehend the personality differences and tensions among the Towne sisters as well as their mother's dissatisfaction with her marriage. Gradually, too, they realize with joy that their middle-aged aunt, a former nun, will marry mailman Fred. In the time frame of one year, McDermott foreshadows and looks back on this event, while creating a world as exact as a documentary film and as lyrically imagined as a poem. A formidably gifted prose stylist, she can make each sentence a bell of sound, a prism of sight."—Publishers Weekly

"Complex family relationships are explored from the viewpoint of three children whose mother takes them on a weekly trip to her childhood home in Brooklyn to visit Momma, their martyred grandmother, and three aunts: Veronica, an overprotected recluse; Agnes, a sophisticated career woman; and May, a sweet former nun whose marriage and death are foretold in the title. The visits are rituals during which the youngsters, obviously adored by the women, are nonetheless absent-mindedly ignored by all except May. Over the predictable meal, the adults indulge in lamentations and vague complaints related to Momma's tragic past and the unsatisfactory marriage of the children's parents. In spare poetic prose, McDermott deftly weaves past and present as seen through the fresh, uncritical eyes of the children. The setting is sensually described in contrasts: the majesty of the Church, the drabness of the Brooklyn apartment, the sterility of suburbia, and the freedom of the family's ocean vacations . . . [A]n example of fine contemporary writing in which the author's use of language in describing the minutiae of everyday life creates a vidid sense of place."—Jackie Gropman, Richard Byrd Library, Fairfax, VA, School Library Journal

"Set in the Sixties, McDermott's third novel (following A Bigamist's Daughter and That Night) tells the story of an extended Irish-American family observed primarily through the eyes of the children, a son and two daughters. Time circles backwards and forwards around a variety of family rituals: holiday meals, vacations at the shore, the wedding of a favorite aunt. The poignant middle-aged romance that develops between the aunt, a former nun, and her suitor, a shy mailman, exacerbates already pronounced family tensions. As they listen to oft-repeated stories about poverty, disease, and early deaths, the children are solemn witnesses to the Irish immigrant experience in America. By turns wry and sad, this is McDermott's finest novel to date. Highly recommended."—Barbara Love, St. Lawrence College, Kingston, Ontario, Library Journal

"Following the author's splendid That Night (1987), this remarkable novel—about the temper and times of an Irish-American family in 1950's Long Island and Brooklyn—firmly establishes McDermott as a writer of major talent. Like Anglo-Irish novelist William Trevor, McDermott plots the touching dignity of ordinary lives pursued on the crest of inevitable sadness. Outside the wedding hall awaits the summons to the wake. Three school-age Dailey children—earnestly watching, like young animals training for survival in the snug safety of adult regimens—dutifully follow their mother Lucy on the summer treks from Long Island to Brooklyn—from the bus stop where Lucy is aware of her 'stunned hopelessness' to the exciting trip through the subway cars and Lucy's leap, with the children, across the 'loud and dark and precarious distance' of the coupled cars, toward home and her native Brooklyn. In the apartment (dark with boredom, tears, and doughty courage) are the aunts, Lucy's sisters: one defeated, one defiantly managing, and then May, simply loving. And there's also 'Momma,' who emigrated from an Irish farm of mud and dirt, tended a dying sister and her four girls, married her sister's husband, and bore her own son, who now pays a (sober) ceremonial visit to his mother once a year at Christmas. Momma's anger has taken on fate. There are endless afternoons—the heavy meal, the cocktail hour, the quarrel time, weeping, and closed doors. But the 'merry fog' of Christmas transforms the apartment, families, and life. For the Daileys there are the shore vacations for two weeks each year, when there is no past, with its ghosts and old hurts, but only a tender present. Then there's the wonderful day when May, the middle-aged ex-nun, is married—days before the fateful tap at the door of the seaside cottage. In translucent prose with rich recognitions, a fine novel of vigorous wisdom and heartbreaking humanity."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Alice McDermott is the author of six novels.  Her articles, reviews and stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Redbook and elsewhere.

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  • Alice McDermott

  • Alice McDermott is the author of six novels and a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, Ms. McDermott is currently the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her articles, reviews and stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Redbook and elsewhere.

  • Alice McDermott Epic Photography/Jamie Schoenberger




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