It takes a while to realize that Mary is not who she seems to be, or rather is far more complicated than she first appears. “You’ve got me,” she tells Hannah, comforting her after they hear the news about their mother. “You’ve got Mary.” But it would be a mistake to interpret her devotion to her vulnerable little sister as simply an indication of her “True Grit”-style pluckiness.
Even before their mother’s death, Mary has always distracted and soothed Hannah by spinning out elaborate fairy tales in which the two of them are cast as princesses battling various evil magical forces in “a land where no one was to be trusted except each other.” The stories come easily to Mary, who at times treats her own life as a malleable piece of fiction in which she is author, manipulator and star.
“They would disappear,” Healy writes, of Mary’s plan to get out of town. “They would be deceitful when they had to, they would use the powers they were granted, and they would make their way back to the one person Mary always knew she would once again find.”
It’s easy to miss the early clues — about Mary’s “opportunistic charm” and her ability to tell “wild, outrageous lies with a steady-eyed calm” — but the truth about her, or one of the truths, begins to make itself clear as the plot unfolds. It’s not just that she steals the occasional bit of cash from the guests at her mother’s motel, or that she so easily deploys “artful deliberateness” in her dealings with her school principal, or that her beauty, charm and guile make her “mesmerizing but terrible” to the men she meets. “Looking Mary in the eyes could be like staring into the sun,” Healy writes.
The reader is kept off balance for a long time, before things start coming into focus. Wait until you see what happens when Mary decides that she and Hannah will invite themselves to spend Christmas with Gail, their mother’s stuck-up second cousin, and Ron, Gail’s frustrated, rich husband (not to mention Tim, their messed-up son). Ron might as well be a frog Mary has tossed into a pot of water, along with a choice selection of herbs and vegetables. He is too intoxicated by the heady aroma to feel the heat rising, to know that he’s about to get cooked.
By the same token, a method underlies the seeming randomness of Mary and Hannah’s subsequent journey in the car they acquire after the eventful little visit to Gail and Ron. They end up in the town of Northton, R.I., and the reader should pay attention when Mary makes note of a certain lovely old stone house on Northton Avenue. Later we’ll find out what it represents, and why Mary happens to be driving past it on a cold evening when her truck has a flat tire.
The story moves forward and backward, as the author drops into the past to fill in some of the blanks, even those we hadn’t realized existed. It’s not until the very end, when Healy boldly repeats verbatim an entire passage from the beginning — how differently we read it this time, with our newfound knowledge — that the extent of the book’s cleverness becomes apparent. We have grown so used to Mary’s dishonesty that a final revelation, that something we thought she had made up is in fact the truth, makes for a genuine shock.
The novel’s best creation is Mary herself, as complex, interesting and flawed a heroine as you could hope for, equal parts Becky Sharp, Scarlett O’Hara and some ineffable and winning quality peculiar only to herself.
One of the people she most reminded me of, in the end, was Sylvie, the unforgettable protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” with her pathological restlessness, her inability to settle into anything resembling a conventional life. Mary has this, too, and a self-destructiveness that is all the more poignant because she is fully aware that it exists inside her.
“Mary had always understood her duality, which began at the moment of her conception,” Healy writes. And later: “What Mary knew, what Mary had always known, is that when you stay still, leg in a trap, trouble can find you.”
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