Quick Review: PETE AND ALICE IN MAINE by Caitlin Shetterly (Harper)

ShetterlyC-PeteAndAliceInMaineUSHCA marriage under strain, during the pandemic…

Reeling from a painful betrayal in her marriage as the Covid pandemic takes hold in New York City, Alice packs up her family and flees to their vacation home in Maine. She hopes to find sanctuary—from the uncertainties of the exploding pandemic and her faltering marriage.

Putting distance between herself and the stresses and troubles of city life, Alice begins to feel safe and relieved. But the locals are far from friendly. Trapped and forced into quarantine by hostile neighbors, Alice sees the imprisoning structure of her life in this new predicament. Stripped down to the bare essentials of survival and tending to the needs of her two children, she can no longer ignore all the ways in which she feels limited and lost—lost in the big city, lost as a wife, lost as a mother, lost as a daughter and lost as a person.

As the world shifts around her and the balance in her marriage tilts, Alice and her husband, Pete, are left to consider if what keeps their family safe is the same thing as what keeps their family together.

An interesting and well-written novel about a marriage on the rocks, set against the backdrop of the chaotic spring of 2020. Shetterly does an excellent job of exploring the challenges of not only the pandemic, but also marriage and family when everything seems to be going wrong, and populating the novel with three-dimensional and realistic characters. I quite enjoyed this.

My interest this novel, I admit, was a result of Richard Russo’s praising blurb. As I read, I found myself agreeing with him: it’s a novel that insists you get to know the characters at its heart, and become invested in their fates. I hadn’t intended to read this as soon as I did — it’s not published until summer 2023 — but I found myself stuck for what to read next, after reading a string of very good novels and histories. I started browsing what I had among by (digital) TBR pile, and opened Pete and Alice in Maine at random. Next thing I knew, I was almost a quarter of the way through. Shetterly’s prose is responsible for that: this is a very well composed novel, quite tightly written despite the often wandering exploration of the internal lives of the titular characters.

Pete and Alice are New Yorkers. When the pandemic hits, they are still navigating the fallout of a painful betrayal — specifically, Pete has cheated on Alice with a coworker. (This isn’t a spoiler. I would honestly have been surprised if this hadn’t happened, based on what we learn about Pete, as well as Alice. Also, it’s a standard of the genre.) They quickly decide to flee the city to their summer cabin up in Maine. However, they have no experience of living in Maine during any season other than summer. After being ostracized by the locals for traveling from a city ravaged by COVID-19, Pete and Alice have to figure out how to make the cabin habitable in the colder months. Not making the situation easier is the fact that their kids are struggling with the pandemic, growing up, and also the tension between their parents.

Over the following months, far longer than they ever expected to stay in Maine, the family relationships experience various ups and downs, and there are moments when Pete and Alice are reminded of why they fell so very much in love, so quickly, early on. At other times, the two are reminded of instances early in their courtship and marriage, newly reframed by recent events. The novel is by turns moving, amusing, frustrating, and more.

Shetterly’s prose is excellent, and there are plenty of excellent and evocative turns of phrase. It’s tightly written, despite not being a typical “page-turner”. There’s no hurry in telling the family’s pandemic story. The characters are brought to life on the page, and even though they are not the most sympathetic individuals, readers will become invested in their struggle (they are quite self-involved, and their privilege can be a bit grating at times, but some of their internal focus is justifiable). You want their kids to figure themselves out, you want Pete and Alice to at least realize what it is they want and need, and for them make decisions that will serve their needs and that of their children. The novel ends rather abruptly — indeed, raising some of the stakes — leaving many of the threads and questions left unanswered, but this made the story more real.

A really interesting debut novel. I’m very much looking forward to whatever Shetterly writes next. Recommended.

*

Caitlin Shetterly’s Pete and Alice in Maine is due to be published in North America by Harper, on July 4th, 2023 (not sure about UK release date/details, at time of writing).

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter
Review copy received via Edelweiss

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