Family Portrait

  • What: Ask Again, Yes
  • Who: Mary Beth Keane
  • Pages: 390, hard cover
  • Genre: Contemporary fiction and family drama
  • Published: 2019
  • The lit: 1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px of 5 flames

I’m no stranger to suburban families with more than enough drama to keep them busy. No, not my family. (We’re actually very rural and very boring.)

No, I mean the families that race into my life via the novels that tell their story. I didn’t really know suburban turmoil was a genre I loved (or that it was even a genre) until my latest read, Ask Again, Yes. From this novel, I learned I have a strong tendency to pick up books that relay familial drama and read them at lightening speed. These types of books absolutely enthrall me. There is something so appealing about the simplicity of everyday people’s lives and the fact that everyone and every family has some story to tell; we just might not see it on the surface. And those backgrounds speak volumes about who we are as individuals, how we interact with others, and the decisions we make. Not to mention we can all relate to them.

If you look through my library, you’ll see quite a few novels with this theme. Commonwealth, the best of the best, ignited my life in 2017, and Little Fires Everywhere did the same thing last year. I guess Ask Again, Yes won this year for heartbreaking and compelling family drama. I take that back: I know it has won.

Ask Again, Yes

“We repeat what we don’t repair.” — Ask Again, Yes

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope met each other when they were just starting out as cops, which inevitably built a connection. There’s nothing like sharing your first beat — in the Bronx nonetheless — to tie two young men together. After hearing of a nice town north of the city where they can raise their families, Francis and Brian move north with their young respective brides, Lena and Anne, an Irish immigrant whose quiet and skeptical demeanor has made her a mystery to the Gleesons.

Over the years, a growing tension has established between the two families, but that hasn’t stopped a profound friendship from forming between two of their kids: Francis and Lena’s daughter Kate and Brian and Anne’s son and only child, Peter. Their parents unsuccessfully try to keep them apart until one catastrophic event definitively splits the pair — at least until they’re old enough to make their own decisions.

As author Mary Beth Keane writes of their coming-of-age experiences and into their adulthood, she proves that when two people want to be together, they’ll defy parents, distance, and society to make it happen. She also beautifully highlights the impact our upbringings, especially childhood trauma, have on our adult lives. It doesn’t matter how much you try to overcome it or push it to the back of your existence, it’ll stay with you forever.

“She’d learned that the beginning of one’s life mattered the most, that life was top-heavy in that way … She’d turned her back on Ireland the day she left, but it was still there, behind her, like a shadow that followed her from place to place to place.” — Ask Again, Yes

I know I just proclaimed how much I love a good family drama in literature, but I really didn’t know that was the premise of Ask Again, Yes when I put in my library hold or even when I downloaded it (months and months later due to its popularity). I just knew it was heating up the 2019 charts and that I needed to read it. What I got was so much more than I had anticipated and, as Maureen Corrigan from NPR declares, a lot of similarities with Ann Patchett — the genius soul who wrote that mesmerizing tale, Commonwealth.

Well, I’ll be damned.

What I love about Keane’s writing is that its simplicity and intensity mirror the lives about which we’re reading. On the surface, the Gleesons and Stanhopes seem like simple and normal families, but when you really dissect the strife in their lives, you discover much more drama brews behind their front doors. Keane’s writing reflects that. I’m not sure if she intentionally uses her writing style to metaphorically explore and illustrate these characters and their relationships, but she certainly succeeds.

“And he’d figured out that the fun was often not the thing itself — the party, the keg stand, the naked running into the duck pond — but the endless talking about it after the reliving and describing, and laughing about it in front of people who wished they’d been there.” — Ask Again, Yes

These same characteristics of her style and voice also represent the empathy borne from the story. By not overdoing the language and making it too eloquent, Keane gives us not just an enjoyable read but also one that’s completely relatable. We can all easily understand what Keane throws at us just like we can easily comprehend the family drama between and within the Gleesons and Stanhopes. Don’t we all have something in our lives that we want to keep locked up? Her writing indicates that we do no matter how hard we try to hide it. This connects all of her readers.

Don’t discount Ask Again, Yes as being too easy or simple of a novel though; it’s far from it. It’s just that Keane makes it digestible so all readers can grasp the message about life and family that she’s conveying. Corrigan describes the novel perfectly: a “modestly magnificent novel.” That’s all I ever want in a book.

To really take a family drama to the next level, you also need superb characterization. Well, we get that too in this one. Keane sprinkles clues as to who these people will become and decisions they will make from the early stages in the book without being too obvious. From a wife who never voices her skepticism about the ‘burbs to the young man who makes a joke about the alcohol he consumes, little actions hint at the characters’ futures. Nothing comes as a surprise, yet everything adds another level of intrigue to create a simmering intensity that climaxes right before it boils over.

“Kate thought about [it] as a conclusion to something, where he thought about it as a beginning. Rising action versus falling action. They were reading different books.” — Ask Again, Yes

This slow-burning novel caught my attention early on this year, and it still has a hold on me. Part of that is inherit in the genre that incapsulates it. Part of it is in Keane’s writing. But it’s also just a great story with complex yet relatable characters and a complicated yet simple plot. If this sounds a lot like the dichotomies of life, that’s because it is, which is exactly the point of this stellar novel.



4 thoughts on “Family Portrait

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