This review has been a bit difficult to start. Upon finishing Mary and O’Neil by Justin Cronin, I immediately ran to my computer to share this jewel of a book with you. I found that I couldn’t quite articulate why I liked it, though. I needed to let it sit for a bit. As it is, I’ve only let it settle for an hour and a half or so, but it has been helpful to do so. This book is not an explosive or bombastic book, socking you in the gut with the raw emotionalism of the ending like The Book Thief. This book is quiet and thoughtful, tracing the rapturous joys and life-altering griefs of an ordinary couple, and from thence comes its beauty and lasting power.
Cronin, a former professor at Rice University in my hometown and author of the New York Times bestselling The Passage, presents the story of Mary and O’Neil, teachers at a Philadelphia high school who meet and fall in love, as a series of moments, little presents of memory unwrapped slowly and artfully to reveal their relationships with each other and their families. The book begins with a beautiful back and forth of perspective between O’Neil’s parents, Arthur and Miriam, as they prepare to visit O’Neil at college and meet his girlfriend. (Spoiler alert: it’s not Mary). The story, for it really is a book of short stories, is beautiful and heartbreaking in its simplicity, familiarity, and grace. In just one chapter, Cronin touches on romantic love and complacency, the temptation of the unattainable, first love, children growing up, fear, loss, and the joy of the little things. The story is so ordinary in its subject yet so extraordinary in its exploration of these themes. The rest of the book presents snapshots of everyday life: Mary’s childhood, O’Neil’s emotional state on the morning of their wedding, O’Neil’s sister, Kay, and her husband’s tenuous relationship, the birth of Mary and O’Neil’s first child, Mary’s burden of a past decision, O’Neil and Kay’s evolving sibling bond. Each snapshot adds to the greater image we have of Mary and O’Neil, their loves, their losses, and their life together.
Cronin’s prose is gorgeously lush, words and imagery tripping over each other like a swiftly moving stream. Moments of chaos are presented with descriptions abstract, quiet, and dreamlike, lulling the reader into a false sense of wonder until the reality of the event hits, like the silence of snow bringing such calm and beauty to tragedy. Alternately moments of joy burst off the page with riotous lyricism. He has a gift for the details, the little things that make memories stick. Cronin is also a master of characterization, creating wholly unique yet universal characters. My friend Matthew, for whom this is his favorite book, said that he recognized himself in O’Neil, and I agree. I recognized myself in several of the characters as well. Their experiences, their loves, their emotions are completely familiar even if the situations are specific to the world of the book. My only complaint is that the book seemed overly focused on O’Neil. We learn much more of him through his family member’s chapters along with his chapters, while we only learn of Mary from her own perspective, her family remaining distant and unknowable.
It’s a little hard to pinpoint exactly why I liked this book so much. Matthew said the same thing. I guess the main feeling I have about this book is a quiet wonder: wonder at the fragility of life, wonder at the strength of love, and wonder at the extraordinary within the ordinary. It’s the kind of book that makes venturing away from my comfort zone genres absolutely worthwhile, and I am ever so grateful to Matthew for giving it to me. So, please, take a few days to enter Mary and O’Neil’s world. You won’t be sorry.