Mary and O'Neil frequently marveled at how, of all the lives they might have led, they had somehow found this one together. When they met at the Philadelphia high school where they'd come to teach, each had suffered a profound loss that had not healed. How likely was it that they could learn to trust, much less love, again Justin Cronin's poignant debut traces the lives of Mary Olson and O'Neil Burke, two vulnerable young teachers who rediscover in each other a world alive with promise and hope. From the formative experiences of their early adulthood to marriage, parenthood, and beyond, this novel in stories illuminates the moments of grace that enable Mary and O'Neil to make peace with the deep emotional legacies that haunt them: the sudden, mysterious death of O'Neil's parents, Mary's long-ago decision to end a pregnancy, O'Neil's sister's battle with illness and a troubled marriage. Alive with magical nuance and unexpected encounters, Mary and O'Neil celebrates the uncommon in common lives, and the redemptive power of love.
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 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 28, 2002
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Excerpt from Mary and O'Neil by Justin Cronin
Last of the Leaves
Arthur in darkness--drifting, drifting--the planet spinning toward dawn: he awakens in gray November daybreak to the sounds of running water and a great arm brushing the side of his house. The wind, he thinks, the wind; the end of autumn, the last of the leaves pulled away. The running water, he understands, was never real.
He lies in the dark of the bedroom he shares with his wife, waiting for the dream to fade--a dream in which, together, they sail over a cliff into blackness. What else A sense of water below, a lake or stream, Miriam's hand in his, of everything loosed from the earth; a feeling like accomplishment, shapes fitting together with mathematical precision, all the equations of the heavens ringing. A dream of final happiness, in which they, Arthur and Miriam, together, at the last, die.
Arthur rises, takes a wool sweater from the chair by his bed, pushes his feet into the warm pockets of his slippers. He draws the sweater over his head, his twisted pajama top; he puts on his glasses and pauses, letting his eyes, cakey with sleep, adjust. In the feeble, trembling light (The moon A streetlamp The day is hours off), he discerns the form of his wife, a crescent-shaped ridge beneath the blankets, and knows her face and body are turned away from him, toward the window, open two inches to admit a trail of cold night air. How is it possible he knows he is going to die
And that the thought does not grieve him But the feeling, he believes, is just a tattered remnant of his dream, still near to him in the dark and cold of the predawn room, Arthur still, after all, in his pajamas; by breakfast it will recede, by lunchtime it will vanish altogether, dissolving into the day like a drop of iodine in water. Is it possible he is still asleep And Arthur realizes this is probably true; he is fast asleep, standing in the icy bedroom, knees locked, his chin lolled forward into the downy fan of hair on his chest; he is, in fact, about to snore.
To snore! And with this his head snaps to attention, his eyes fly open; he is, at last and truly, awake, dropped as if from a great height to land, perfectly uninjured, here. The living, breathing Arthur. But to be fifty-six years old, and dream of death, and not be afraid; this thought has somehow survived the journey into Arthur's encroaching day, hardening to a kernel of certainty in his heart. He shakes his head at the oddness of this fact, then at the coldness of the room, Christ Almighty; even in the dark Arthur can see his breath billowing before him like a cloud of crystals.