Book Review : Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Spoiler-Free)

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel

Author : Mary Beth Keane
Published By : Scribner
Year Published : 2019
Genre / Tags : Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Literary Fiction
Mood : Sad, stressed, yet compassionate.
Formats : Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook
# of Pages : 390 pages (Hardcover)

Summary

How much can a family forgive?

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the bond between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, two rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne—sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Francis and Lena’s daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s son, Peter. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while tested by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

Review

Note : While I excised parts of this review to keep it spoiler-free, some areas may still reveal a bit much. I tried to keep it relevant to only matters that are mentioned in the blurb above.

I went into this book with high and perhaps misguided expectations, and a stubborn willingness to continue when I should have long-guessed it wasn’t going to be right for me. But there remained a lingering curiosity due in part to the hype, some interest in a couple of characters, and the fact that I did really adore the first 25% or so.

About that first 25% I was immediately taken in by the premise and told a friend “This book is going to be huge.” Actually, it’s already quite popular. I have only rarely come across a stand-alone book that was checked out/waitlisted in ALL of my nearby libraries within so many miles. The libraries where I live tend to be under-utilized so that was quite a surprise.

The premise is totally up my alley. Some summaries I’ve read mention a sort of family saga drama spanning generations with plot threads concerning many different characters across decades of time (like The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough or Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? Both of which I loved.)

A very heart-rending, powerful and heartbreaking story line with troubled and complex characters (like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara or The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls? Both of which I loved.)

A story of star-crossed lovers who are childhood friends met with intense disapproval toward their union? Sold!! I would kill to find a romance novel like that, and seeing a love story of that sort in literary fiction is more than welcome.

And yet I largely disliked Ask Again, Yes. A book that has a lot in common with some of the most precious books of my collection.

I usually start with the good but in this case I’ll start with the bad, then wrap around to the good.

So, this one ended up not having romance, which is totally fine. But it doesn’t just have no romance- it’s like the anti-romance, the polar opposite of romantic, and preceded by a sadly perfect setup for a love story.

These characters, Peter and Kate, are split up across a span of years and we see their births, their upbringing, their departure from one another, their college years, finally they are just about to meet again and then.. drumroll the author skips completely over a long-suffering, long-awaited reunion to plunk us down into grim moments, years later.

About the family saga bit- there are really only six or so characters who ever matter across the span of this novel. I could not tell you a single worthwhile thing about Kate’s sisters or other assorted children who are born, for example.

I feel kind of weird about leveling my next criticism, which is that everything that everyone goes through is awful. I have a strange, hard-to-explain fondness for books where everything is awful. A Little Life from Hanya Yanagihara, for example, had me crying at 4 o’clock in the morning while marathoning its 800+ pages.

I think my lack of connection could have something to do with the emphasis on domestic drama. As mentioned briefly in the synopsis the “daily intimacies of marriage” bit. I have made efforts over the years to pointedly avoid books about very down-to-earth suburban slice-of-life issues and domesticity unless it’s merely a feature of a larger whole, as can be the case with thriller, horror, or magical realism novels.

I’ve tried a few books in the past that ended up going into minute detail on things like worrying about a child’s major in college, buying a new house, maintaining a yard, and dramas like cheating, mid life crises, marriage problems, etc. Nearly all of these things are present in Ask Again, Yes to a level of detail that I found dull and plodding.

In one passage that was quite easy to relate to, Peter laments how boring and monotonous his life is and how the boredom and tedium he feels in such a plain day-to-day life is causing problems for him. I completely and utterly understood where he was coming from and often felt challenged in reading about it.

The final area of trouble for me was the dialogue between characters. I would like to preface this by stating that the writing is by and large gorgeous. But then characters actually talk to each other and it’s like a whiplash of clunky, curt, short-shrift dialogue that is not warm, conversational, or particularly intelligent. I always had the sense that they just don’t know each other very well. To be fair, these issues tie into a theme of the story- inadequate communication. But it’s nevertheless frustrating to see this often unappealing dialogue and led to my actively disliking almost everyone in the narrative and having a distaste for their relationships with one another.

Now finally, the good.

The writing struck me immediately as being beautiful. This is literary fiction, with befitting metaphors and passages that dig deep into the psyche of some of these characters and offer insight into what makes them tick. Considering the heavy nature of this story in dealing with mental illness, disabilities, and addiction- the amount of empathy present within the writing and the surprising, touching climax and ending is well in good faith and meaningful.

I felt quite strongly for Peter and, in a complex way, Anne. Anne is harmful to those around her but she’s also harmful to herself. I felt a complicated mix of compassion for the character and fear of what effect she might have on the rest of the cast. Some of the scenarios are really quite clever at depicting the issues she faces and providing a deep insight and even pulsing tension at brief intervals. Anne is one of the reasons I kept on. I didn’t exactly like her but she was worth reading about.

I did like Peter though and in a more conventional way at that. Really hoped that he would be okay in the end. One of the reasons why I kept reading was to see if he would be. I also liked his Uncle George, who offers some of the precious few bits of decent dialogue in this book. I actively disliked everyone else and couldn’t connect with them.

The final thing I’d like to mention is that I seem to be way in the minority with my thoughts on this book. Many have been deeply touched by the characterization and honest, realistic portrayals within. Where I was bored, many others have been moved to tears. Being able to relate to the situations of the book and lifestyles of the characters may make for a more prepared and fulfilling experience.

Overall Rating – 6/10

Why You Might Like It – High grade literary fiction writing, several little meaningful passages that dive into the motives behind an assortment of characters. I was enraptured by the beginning (First 25% or so.) A family drama that focuses on their struggles to overcome a traumatic event and dealing with the repercussions. There is a tangible realism that I found boring that others may find to be grounded and believable. There are several worthy talking points about how characters react to the startling events, making this a pretty good book club selection. The tail end was nicely handled. This book could be useful and helpful to people in its way of tackling difficult subject matter.

Why You Might Not Like It – Even though this is a story about two families, many members remain under-developed. Even though there were strong building blocks for a blossoming romance, they’re handled in a most unromantic way. There are rarely any breaks from hardship. While I personally find the end messages of this book to be edifying, others may consider those choices too dismissive of the harm posed by a specific character. The focus on meticulous descriptions of domesticity in the last 50% or so was truly DNF-worthy for me.

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel

Have you read Ask Again, Yes and have any thoughts on it? Are you interested in reading it? I do still recommend giving this book a shot just in case, as I’m pretty much in the minority in not liking it. Any and all of your thoughts are appreciated at any time, and thanks for checking out this review!

11 thoughts on “Book Review : Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Spoiler-Free)

  1. I’ve been wondering if this book might be overhyped, and it sounds like it was for you! Wondering how it compares to a book like Commonwealth, which I loved. I like really character-driven stories that aren’t super melodramatic. But I suppose family stories hit us all differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow I just looked up Commonwealth on Goodreads and it sounds quite similar! I highly recommend trying out Ask Again, Yes. There is what I’d describe as a sort of quiet dignity to the writing, even though some of the proceedings are dramatic. Thank you for dropping by and for your comment.

      Like

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