Friday, September 14, 2012

Fiction | Maggie Now or Never

Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been one of my favorite books since I was about 17, and I've only re-read it once since then.

One of the great things about it? I never remember the story exactly; I just remember how it made me feel. And whatever that feeling was, it was great. That's my favorite kind of book—the kind that sticks with you not because of the plot, but because it made you feel so amazing during and after reading it.

Since A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I've tried to pick up some of Smith's other novels. I read Joy in the Morning a year or so ago, and when I saw Maggie-Now—one I'd never heard of—at a book conference this winter, I picked it up to add to my collection, expecting great things.

Maggie-Now is the daughter of a reckless Irish immigrant, Patsy, who married Maggie's mother mostly just to prove something to her father. Patsy was a lowly stableboy when he first came to America, Brooklyn specifically (obviously, since this is a Smith novel). The daughter of the household for which he was working, Mary, took a liking to him. Her father was not a fan of these affections, but they proceeded with a marriage anyway. Once we're post-wedding, Maggie-Now enters the scene—a curious, mischievous, bright-eyed girl who earned her nickname by people always yelling after her, "Maggie, now stop doing that," or, "Maggie, now come inside," etc, etc. When Mary dies in childbirth with Maggie's much-younger brother, Maggie's life changes as she takes control of a house and child while still just a teenager.

Despite quite a long build-up to even get to Maggie's story, the rest of the novel follows the decades of her life—from raising her brother almost as a son, to falling in love with a travelling man, to the never-ending daily struggles with her quarrelsome father. Maggie-Now matures before our eyes through the slow, gradual pace of the novel. My favorite reflection of hers:

What a pity, she thought, that you get used to things and never see them again the way you saw them for the first time.

I think that all the time.

Maggie-Now was written with a tone nearly identical to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The structure is similar—following a young girl protagonist as she learns the ins and outs of life, its joys and disappointments. But this book did not have nearly the same effect. Why is that?

Frankly put, I couldn't much sympathize with Maggie-Now. I read one comment on this novel that called her the "proverbial doormat" and I think that's it, dead-on. She lets the men in her life walk all over her. And she claims she wants this lifestyle, but I can't accept that. For someone who was so precocious and full of life as a child, her character just...sagged. Once she passes out of adolescence, she lacks the spunk, the independence, the backbone, and the curiosity that made A Tree's Francie such a strong character. Overall, I found this story lacking, because I just couldn't get behind the character that the reader was so clearly supposed to support. Maybe it's unfair to compare the two, but the books are so similar in tone that it's hard not to, and it helps decipher why this one just fell flat.


Jenny said...

I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn too, but it seems like the rest of Smith's novels aren't really worth reading. I def want to re-read A Tree though.

Aarti said...

Oh, NO. How can the heroine be a doormat when the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was emphatically NOT one? So sad.

Kari said...

I liked Joy in the Morning. It was simple and sweet. The main character wasn't on Francie's level, but she had substance and you rooted for her. That's what was lacking in this one.

Kari said...

I know, I wonder what opinion of this one would be if you read this first without any knowledge of A Tree..

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