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MARY AND O’NEIL by Justin Cronin

MARY AND O’NEIL

By Justin Cronin

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 2001
ISBN: 0-385-33358-7
Publisher: Dial

With subtlety and grace, a first novel—actually a series of eight linked, chronologically arranged stories—illuminates momentous if commonplace events in the lives of a modern New England family.

It’s 1979, and O’Neil’s parents, Arthur and Miriam, are preparing to visit him at his New Hampshire college. Each has a secret: she’s just learned that she probably has breast cancer; he’s just written a note to Dora Auclaire, a family friend he believes he’s fallen in love with. Those secrets are never divulged (though Arthur’s note will surface later). On their return to Glenn’s Mills, New York, they take a wrong turn in a snowstorm and are killed; their deaths will reverberate throughout these pages. O’Neil’s future wife Mary is introduced well into the novel, working rather aimlessly at a bar in a Minnesota college town not far from where she grew up. Pregnant by her artist roommate, a man she doesn’t particularly like, she decides on abortion: “How terrible, she thought, to be twenty-two, and already have the worst thing of her life to remember.” Cronin only sparingly sketches the details of how Mary and O’Neil meet, while their wedding is related in a brilliant passage titled simply “Groom.” Late for the ceremony, O’Neil remembers his parents: “He holds the picture in his mind as long as he can, until . . . the signal breaks up like a radio station gone out of range.” Nothing very unusual happens to the couple. They become teachers, have children, incur debts, face marital problems. Much of the story’s second half is taken up with O’Neil’s sister Kay, now stricken with cancer. Throughout, O’Neil himself is cast in the everyday roles of son, brother, husband, and father, yet Cronin infuses these passages of common life with a tenderness and depth that draw the reader in.

A quiet debut, its very understatement giving rise to its poignancy and strength.