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Originally published Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 3:05 AM

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Alice McDermott’s ‘Someone’: finding love despite herself

In Alice McDermott’s new novel “Someone,” the National Book Award-winning author uses the life of an ordinary Brooklyn woman to look at love and marriage with a discerning eye. McDermott reads Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Alice McDermott

The author of “Someone” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Free (206-386-4636;

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by Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp., $25

Prize-winning author Alice McDermott has two hallmarks as a novelist: First, she writes intimately and well about the Irish Catholic world in which she grew up. Secondly, she uses ordinary people and events to uncover the extraordinary nature of daily existence.

Operating between these two guideposts, the writer has been lauded by critics and collected the National Book Award for “Charming Billy,” the story of a man who lost at love. In her latest novel, “Someone,” she flips the tables with an unlikely heroine who finds love despite herself.

Her name is Marie, and she’s plain-looking, willful and sometimes sadly self-absorbed. Yet, as she takes us from her childhood to old age, roaming backward and forward in nonchronological fashion, Marie reveals the critical quality of mind that allows her to survive her garden-variety failings: resilience.

Marie, McDermott’s version of Everywoman, takes the blows of everyday life and endures.

The book opens in Brooklyn, where Marie grows up with an older brother, Gabe, who is the family star. Details of those early years — a woman’s calves “veined with gray and blue like marble pillars,” her brother’s finger “ still marking his place in the breviary” as they talk — portray an upbringing in which the mundane and the divine keep close company.

Ordained for the priesthood, Gabe inexplicably disavows his calling and returns home in time to console his sister over her first failed romance.

“I’m sorry this happened to you, Marie,” he says with a weariness that she doesn’t bother to probe. “There’s a lot of cruelty in the world.”

Yes, but: “Who’s going to love me?” she asks.

“Someone,” Gabe assures her. “Someone will.”

Someone: It’s not just a title, but also a central theme of a novel that looks at the wonders of love and marriage with a discerning eye. After her mother pushes her into a job as the receptionist at a funeral home, Marie learns from the old women who gossip about each new arrival. But her own life is her greatest teacher, and here she is ably assisted by Tom, the wisecracking, openhearted man she marries.

Tom, not Marie, is the most sympathetic figure in the novel — not only the “someone” she can trust, but also a man, she realizes with some surprise, who trusts her with his happiness.

Gabe, Marie’s brother, is Tom’s counterweight. All his compassion and brilliance can’t contain the conflicts that deny him solace and eventually overwhelm him.

The most salient quality of the book, and McDermott’s work in general, is her ability to capture the spoken and unspoken richness of our most important relationships. Nowhere is this done more succinctly than after Marie wakes up one morning with what appears to be a detached retina. Tom calls the doctor; they leave for the hospital; she is wheeled away to surgery.

“I looked over my shoulder and waved goodbye to him as if I were a woman on a passing train,” she recalls. “He stood alone in the now strangely empty room, not a bit of concern in his bright smile or his jaunty wave, but unabashed fear and sorrow in his eyes and across his high forehead.”

Even with her compromised vision, Marie recognizes a face that tells her she is loved.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland book critic.

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