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Mary and O'Neil: A Novel in Stories Paperback – January 29, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
The title of Cronin's debut collection of eight interconnected stories, set between 1979 and the present, implies that the content will be devoted to the relationship between the eponymous duo. Instead, they don't appear in the same tale until halfway through, detailing their marriage in their early 30s after both become teachers. Before this, there's a lengthy opening story concerning the events leading up to the accidental death of O'Neil's parents, Arthur and Miriam; another story on how O'Neil and his older sister, Kay, cope with the aftermath; and a third about the abortion Mary has at the age of 22. After the wedding, the stories still don't always focus on the pair, with one devoted solely to Kay's own dysfunctional marriage. Cronin, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is an accomplished craftsman, and at times his prose is quite moving and beautiful, though the sadness he channels is too often uninflected by humor. Playing out variations on the theme of the inability of parents and children to truly know one another, Cronin is capable of creating fresh poignancy. Readers interested in going straight to the best of the collection should head for "Orphans" and "A Gathering of Shades," in which the author affectingly paints how the two siblings help each other through the pain of living and dying, showcasing the real love story here. Agent, Ellen Levine. (Feb. 13) Forecast: This is a promising debut collection, and national print advertising in the New Yorker and alternative weeklies should target the appropriate readership. Sponsorship announcements will also feature the title on NPR.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
It is 1979, and 19-year-old O'Neil Burke has it all. He's in love, successful in college, and warmed by the affection of his parents and older sister Kay. After a weekend visiting their son, the Burkes, protecting each other from dark, unshared secrets, drive off an icy embankment and die. O'Neil's mounting losses include his girl, his career ambitions, and any sense of direction. Eventually, he finds his way back into a pleasant life, teaching high school English in Philadelphia and marrying Mary. More sorrow solidifies the bond between O'Neil and his sister when she fights a losing battle with cancer in her late thirties. Cronin's key mistake in this fine series of linked short stories about a family weathering crushing blows is indicated by his misleading title. Mary, who makes her first appearance nearly 100 pages into the book, is not nearly the presence that O'Neil, his parents, and his sister are. This is too bad, as the scenes between Mary and O'Neil are rich with affectionate humor, leaving the reader wanting more. Nevertheless, this is a worthy first effort by a novelist worth watching.
-DBeth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
This story is essentially the story of O'Neil going from a young adult into an adult and the struggles that go along with your interpersonal growth. It dealt with difficult real world subjects that happen to lots of people like death, major illnesses, marriage, abortion, childbirth, and dealing with a special needs child. While those subject are far from entertaining, the way they are used to move the character along felt genuine and I was able to see reflections of my own life and growth in the stories. The story is told in approximately 8 separate stories with a different primary character all which tie back together.
I can make one positive point about Mary and O'Neil -- the descriptions of cancer treatments are quite realistic, including the camaraderie one can experience in the chemotherapy rooms and the cumulative nature of the fatigue / side effects. While I have not had to endure this myself, someone very close to me has, and the cancer treatment scenes in this novel more or less accurately reflect his experiences.
Back to negatives, however, I found the book's discussions of abortion to be a unrealistically over-the-top -- the author makes it sound like every woman who has ever had an abortion is later traumatized by it, which in fact is far from true. Also, I wondered if Mary was heading toward psychosis at some point -- based on things she experienced and saw in the book (I won't give details here) -- but I suppose you'll just have to read it if you want to know what I'm talking about, since I don't want to give spoilers....
Also, the descriptions of physical locations in this book lacked important detail. For example, I'm from the St. Louis area, and when one of the characters is trying to tell a child about St. Louis he doesn't even mention Busch Stadium, or the Mississippi River / the Riverfront, or the ARCH, for goodness sake. To me this shows a lack of research or at least a lack of observation about important aspects of the book's settings.
And finally, character development -- there were a lot of inconsistencies. Kay is first depicted as quite cold and "mysterious", but then turns out to be this heroic, always loving and always supportive sister to O'Neil -- that's weird. The mom (I have already forgotten her name) is portrayed as suffering from a reverse Oedipal complex toward her son, but then reverses that when she meets her son's very Renaissance-woman girlfriend -- who is possibly the most likable character in the book, though she only appears on a few pages. O'Neil's mother also seems shrewish toward Jack, Kay's husband, and comes off as pretty unappealing as a result of all that, and then her husband (O'Neil's dad) comes off as a cold fish who wants to cheat on his wife, but perhaps doesn't have the courage (or something like that?). The plot device involving them seems unrealistically dramatic too (again, I won't give details). The total effect is that it's hard to embrace these characters, as it's difficult to really know them. I also don't feel like I know much about Mary at all, even though her name appears in the title of the book.... and so on.
That said, I admire anyone who can pen a readable first novel, and Mr. Cronin has accomplished that -- it just seems that, with more thorough editing and plot/character/form/setting development, this could have been a much better book.
The first story, "Last of the Leaves" grabbed my heart and did not let go. It was so exquisitely rendered -- powerful yet tender at the same time...a wonderful story of love.
The rest of the book follows Mary and O'Neil through the their separate and together lives and those of some family members. Each story/chapter both illuminates, and revolves around, a defining moment of their lives. Death, illness, birth are all explored and written of with such lovely prose, each word seemingly polished to perfection.
Without using a lot of description, Cronin somehow manages to thoroughly familiarize the reader with his characters and their lives.
A book to remember.