Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes: Just What Are We Asking Again?

You actually won’t know till the very last line, so the real question is this: is the book worth the answer? As we discuss it, it’s tough to know just what to say about the plot. Jennifer went into it blindly. It’s a saga. There are two NYPD guys and they each have families that they move into the suburbs, and their families become inextricably linked. What follows is, well, a lot of links. In looking at other reviews, we see that a few things are mentioned: mental illness, Irish Catholic New Yorker stuff, and a nice little comparison with Ann Patchett. So how do we discuss this book — which spans about four decades or more — without giving away too much?

Jennifer: Well, first off, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. At no point—and I mean, NO point—was I a tad bored or even distracted! You?

Lara: It’s officially on my list of favorite reads. I inhaled every word. Could. Not. Put. It. Down.

Jennifer: I guess that one thing I want to ask you is if you think the amount of crazy that happens is just too much crazy. Is it too crazy? Do people — one family — encounter this amount of drama? Now, if you were asking Jennifer Spiegel, I would invariably say with 100% certainty that, Yes, It’s Very Possible. In fact, I was truthfully drawn in because I Get It.

Lara: I wholeheartedly agree. Look at the Kennedys. That family has endured A LOT and these families don’t even come close. It’s funny, when talking about it, it can sound like full on dramarama. But when reading it, it was totally realistic.

Jennifer: Um, look at my fam (wink, wink).

One aspect that I really like is the interconnectedness between events and people, how one thing leads to another. I think it’s actually the same thing that I love about TV’s “This Is Us.” Our lives do actually make sense!

I think one of the major themes of this book is connected to the following question: How do we make sense of our lives? Keane writes,

“She’d learned that the beginning of one’s life mattered the most, that life was top-heavy that way.”

And this:

“Kate thought about their wedding day as a conclusion to something, where he thought about it as a beginning. Rising action versus falling action. They were reading different books.”

I guess one big appeal of the book to me was this sense of putting it all together, making sense of drama, forging out beginnings and endings.

Lara: So I am in the camp that believes things happen in our lives for a reason. And that people are put into our lives for a reason. That belief of mine played out in this book. I mean, you have two families, neighbors, where both husbands are on the police force and should be barbecuing on the weekends together, but they aren’t. The kids interact, against the desires of one of the mothers, and then the unthinkable happens. A situation occurs that creates an even bigger chasm between the families, and yet. They can’t not be connected.

I think it’s also a story that explores the boundaries of love, forgiveness, mental illness, and what it means to be a family. It’s a pretty perfect story, If you ask me. I hope I am not overselling it.

But it’s so good to me that if someone read it and didn’t like it?

I don’t know that I could talk about it.

I don’t want to hear it.

Jennifer: I admit that I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out if this fell into my beloved literary fiction category, or if this was just high-caliber genre fiction. Or was it in a category that I hate — and have been placed in myself — “Women’s Fiction”? But, lo and behold, I decided that this was an internally dumb quarrel and I declared (all to myself), Fuck That Shit. This is well-written. Fast-paced, good characters, nice writing:

“This was the great shock of America, winters that would cut the face off a person, summers that were as thick and as soggy as bogs.”

Lara: Fuck that shit, for sure! This is really good storytelling. I mean, really good. Keane has a way of capturing the little nuances in an interaction. You could feel the tension as much as you could feel the anticipation. She has mad storytelling skills.

Here’s the thing that clinched it for me. There are a few characters in this book that, at the onset, you really should dislike. They make terrible choices. They are terribly flawed. You wouldn’t be friends with them in real life and you would pray that they weren’t in your family. Yet, Keane shines a light on them where you can see their humanity. It may not justify their choices, but it certainly helps you understand and have empathy for them. THAT is the power of great storytelling!

Jennifer: I do agree. My guess is that you’re talking about this one particular character who does something “unforgiveable.” And she really does — and, yet, you do come to empathize. Cautiously, no doubt. I still didn’t like her, per se — but she wasn’t outside of the human experience.

So, this is a bizarre and historic time. How’s your reading life? What books have you recently read?

Lara: Dear reader, the bizarre and historic time Jennifer is referring to is the COVID-19 pandemic.

My reading has been sporadic, at best. I mean, this column was supposed to come out in April and I adored the book and I haven’t been able to do my part to finish it (until now, May 20, 2020). I have started and stopped a number of what should be really good literary reads. I just can’t right now. I have kept up most of my book club obligations, reading Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore (I’ll give it a “B”); The Ways We Said Goodbye, by three authors (and unfortunately it read like it was written by three different people, so it comes in at a “C”). And I should be finishing The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves this weekend. I am enjoying it the most of my recent reads.

What about you?

Jennifer: So, before the pandemic, I was zipping along. . . Rick Bragg’s All Over But The Shoutin’ – solid “A.” Liz Phair’s Horror Stories, Gen X but “C.” Ta-nehesi Coates’ The Water Dancer – I’ll give it a “B,” and bet his next novel will be Pulitzer-worthy. John Boyne’s Boy In The Striped Pajamas? “A,” again!

And then the world changed! Now, I’m having difficulties, frankly. I’m not putting in as much time. I’m distracted. I have finished two very notable exceptions, and I’m recommending both. I read and loved Jenny Offill’s Weather, which is so perfect for the times. The prose and style is similar to Dept. of Speculation—snippets of lyrical gems. And then I read Severance by Ling Ma. The book was recommended to me coincidentally (see our review above for thoughts on things happening for a reason)—but it’s wildly relevant. It’s about a virus originating in China. Both of those are great.

Readers! What have you been reading? Have you been reading? Can you even read right now? Let us know in the comments!

Up Next!

Join us, at some point, for when we discuss The Children’s Bible: A Novel by Lydia Millet

Until then, happy reading or whatever you are doing to get through this time!


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