Polemic of the Personal: J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine

Jessanne Collins | June 23rd, 2011

J. Courtney Sullivan

The other night, the novelist J. Courtney Sullivan was reading a New Yorker commentary about Anthony Weiner’s resignation, which suggested that the old feminist maxim “the personal is political” is perhaps too simplistic to apply to our particularly overexposed modern lives. “I was like, wait, what?” she recalls, on the phone from the back deck of an Ogunquit, Maine, beach house. “I’d still say that’s pretty accurate.”

A decade ago, in any case, it was a concept that rather sharply underscored the curriculum at Smith College, where Sullivan and I were contemporaries but not acquaintances. And in her second novel, Maine, out this month from Knopf, she has woven the tenet so subtly as to be seamless into a heady, hefty family drama, which unfolds in the confines of a worn cottage set just down the road from the rental she’s using as a home base for a series of New England readings this week.

Like her debut novel, 2009’s Commencement, about four Smith girls finding their way through their early twenties, Maine is unabashedly a beach read. Sullivan’s work is entertaining and affecting, built on Housewives-worthy drama and delving into rough emotional waters. But it is also, in that Smithian sense, innately political, built on an intricate and quite deliberate socioeconomic foundation — class consciousness, sexual politics, the shape of history. In the end, it’s about the ways a person’s place — in time, in space, in a family — shapes a life down to its most intimate details.

“The word ‘feminism’ never appears in Maine, whereas in Commencement, the characters were saying it on every page,” Sullivan says. “These women are not concerned with politics, but they do live their lives within a certain framework.”

There are four central female characters in Maine. At one pole is Alice, the elderly matriarch of an extended Boston Irish Catholic family, who, despite her disinterest in motherhood, found her fate sealed long ago when her priest personally forbade her to use birth control. At the other is her granddaughter Maggie, a moderately successful but not quite satisfied Brooklyn writer who confronts the limbo of her early thirties by making a half-rash decision to skip a few pills and see what happens.

Strung between them, forming their own polar tensions, are Maggie’s mother, Kathleen, who’s rebelled from her family by recovering from her alcoholism, settling into a deliberately messy West Coast life where she runs a worm-dung fertilizer company, and Kathleen’s sister-in-law, Ann Marie, who’s developed a fixation with dollhouses just as her own picket fence existence in a wealthy Massachussetts suburb begins dissolving into disarray.

With it’s subtler politics and broader worldview, Sullivan sees the book as a “next step,” for her, as an author and also as a person. “The books that I write, as I’m writing them, are always in a way answering a question I have in my own head,” she says. Commencement was about “the ideals we leave school with, and what happens to them in the real world. What do you think you’d never do, and what do you actually do?”

By her own description, Sullivan was a pajama-wearing überfeminist — the “whole Smith cliche” — when she arrived in New York City after graduating in 2003. Soon she found herself — of all things! — working at Allure and penning a self-help book called Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man. Its cover bore an illustration of a manicured finger pushing a “penthouse” button, and its publication brought with it the requisite ribbing afforded by Gawker and the like to those new New Yorkers who are young and fresh and toeing success.

“I wouldn’t write it now, and I wouldn’t tell my 22-year-old self to write it,” Sullivan laughs. “When you’re starting out in any job you’re going to make awkward mistakes. If you’re lucky, no one sees them, but when you do it in book form…”

That said, she stands by the book’s original idea, borne of “a big conversation about what it means to be a whole person.” In that sense, it was an early meditation on the very contemporary feminist question which has become a through-line of her work: What happens when our problem becomes not what we can’t have, but how to choose between all the things we can?

It’s history now, in any case: That paycheck let Sullivan lay off babysitting and catering and the other gigs writers take on to make ends meet, and write her bestselling first novel. It’s success led to this one, anticipated and ambitious. And it, right now, is affording her a few precious minutes in the sun at one of her favorite places in the world.

She’s also well aware that the next generation may in fact have it worse. “I can’t even look at the diaries I wrote in high school, they’re so cringy. I don’t know what I’d do if blogs had existed,” she says. “I feel so grateful to have been born at the moment I was.”