Mary & O’Neil by Justin Cronin

I was recently asked what sort of books I liked. I replied “Contemporary relationship stories.” I think that made sense to the person who had asked the question!

I like stories that explore relationships, particularly families. I like stories that examine regular feelings – grief, love, loneliness, joy and so forth – in a new way, that puts fresh words around the familiar. Some authors are able to articulate particular emotions with astounding clarity (most recently, Jessie Cole’s memoir Staying took my breath away, and earlier this year Paula Keogh’s The Green Bell did the same) – these are the book I enjoy most.

That’s a long introduction to Justin Cronin’s short debut novel, Mary & O’Neil. The story traces the lives of two characters, Mary Olson and O’Neil Burke. When they meet, both have suffered profound losses (all is revealed in the blurb but if you intend to read this book based on my flimsy review, just dive straight in).

Unhappiness, he discovered, was an emotion distinct from grief, and he found it was possible both to miss his parents terribly – a loss so overwhelming he simply couldn’t take it all in, like looking at a skyscraper up close – while also finding in the job of settling their affairs a satisfying orderliness.

How terrible, she thought, to be twenty-two, and already have the worst thing of her life to remember.

Mary & O’Neil is best described as a compressed family saga – we learn a lot about the families of both Mary and O’Neil, which gives context to their decisions and relationships as adults, before Cronin has the two characters meet (that said, Cronin spends more time on O’Neil’s story).

This is not a book that over-stretches, or promises more than it delivers. Instead, it’s a quiet novel and while there are dramatic events, there are no more than one would expect within the lifetime of a family. Cronin strikes a balance between matter-of-factness, which keeps the story moving, and sensitivity, allowing the reader to identify with what the characters are feeling.

4/5 Unexpectedly wonderful.

O’Neil, on the food served at his college –

“The stuff they serve here is like army rations. Want to know what they gave us last night? Salmon loaf and pea-cheese sauce. We thought it was a joke, like Eat this, and that’s what you’ll do: you’ll pee cheese sauce.”

Salmon loaf with creamed pea sauce is an actual thing but I figure if you’ve got salmon and peas then surely this orecchiette with salmon, peas and beurre blanc sauce is a little more exciting?

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 12): Belfast 10°-17° and Melbourne 10°-18°.

12 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I am currently nearly finished The Passage on audio. I love his writing and have enjoyed it immensely. I met Justin at a book festival after hearing him speak and he was so smart and interesting. I really want to finish his trilogy but I had no idea that he had published other books so thank you. I will add this to my tbr.

  3. I’m a fan of relationship stories, but they don’t need to be contemporary and in fact I enjoy the structure of C19TH rules. And yes, I’d prefer peas to pea sauce – isn’t that what the English dip their chips in?

    • All the salmon loaf and pea sauce recipes seemed to come from England…I didn’t associate it with UK but it obviously is! South Australians like a mushy pea but with pies, not salmon! Either way, I’ll take the salmon and peas with pasta.

  4. This really appeals – a balance between matter-of-factness and sensitivity is perfect reading for me 🙂

    As a Brit I’ve never come across salmon loaf or pea sauce – mushy peas with pie and/or chips yes, but not pea sauce. I definitely prefer the sound of the orecchiette recipe!

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