I finished Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane two days ago, and I waited and waited and waited, for everything to sink in before I write this final post and talk about my humble thoughts about it. Yes, it is that kind of book. No, I didn’t expect it. I expected good but this story, these characters, these lives–these journeys I went on with them, oh if only the word “good” has a superlative a thousand times stronger in degree and scope.
Let’s begin with the character I like the least—Brian Stanhope. The one who kind of begins and ends the book. The weakest in his own character and imo also the one I felt the hardest to connect with. Also—if my memory is somewhat reliable—the only main character who does not get the treatment of a narrative from his own viewpoint. And yet he also feels real, the sometimes-life-sucks-and-people-disappoint kind of real. By being a coward, to his wife Anne, to his son Peter, to his brother George, he ends up driving them all to become the strong characters they turn out to be.
I remember introducing this book as an American family drama in my first post about a month ago when I started reading the book. I still stand by this statement. Except this novel completely expanded my understanding of what a great family drama can do to you as a reader.
Life happens to each of us so fast and unexpected that we don’t remember even half of it, and even less, the more distracted we are. A great novel, especially one where you follow a few characters in and out, day to day, from childhood to marriage, without the fantasy or magic or saving the world all other great novels might have, really put you in perspectives. It’s the everyday we live, after all. The one time you wished to join the other kids in a snow fight along your 10-year-old neighbor best friend. The moment when you decided to be a police officer after college. The one when you succumbed to loneliness and cheated on your wife who loved you and you loved so much. The night you asked your loved one to marry you and she said yes. Those are the hopes and wants and failures and triumphs. They are the stuff our lives are made of.
The great novel zooms in and lays out these defining moments and because it is made of words printed on paper, allows us to really look at the beginnings and the middles and the next thing—not the ending because nobody really sees the ending, not of one’s own life, not of the characters—and by doing so expands the horizon so much that you can honestly say your own life is enriched by the experience. You look at your own life differently.
“Things are better now, they feel like they’re getting better—don’t they? But there might be more coming. This might be the least of it. Have you thought about that? We knew nothing about what it meant to grow up, to be partners, parents, all of it. Nothing. And maybe we still don’t. Would you have said yes back then if you’d known?”
“But I know now. So ask me.”
“I’ll give you a hint,” she said, squeezing his hands until he looked up to meet her eyes. “Then and now, I say yes.”