It’s been said that all the world’s stories have been told and now what’s left for us to do is magically reshape, retell, readapt, modernize, futurize (if that’s a word) and fantasize.
To my mind, Ask Again, Yes could be said to be an absorbing twist on the Romeo and Juliet story. The basic premise is there—two feuding families (with good reason) not wanting their children to see each other, let alone become romantically involved.
But let me back up. Wound into this is the American dream story that may or may not have gone awry. Two rookie cops in the NYC Police Department with Irish roots, Brian Stanhope and Francis Rooney, are partners. Brian is Irish American with an Irish born wife, Anne. Francis is Irish born, his wife Lena, half Polish, half Italian.
They don’t stay partners. Brian is a drinker and on the lazy, careless side. Francis, the better cop. After Brian finds a house in the quiet suburb of Gillam in Rockland County outside of New York City. Francis, unwittingly, buys the house next door.
That is when the trouble begins. Brian’s wife is odd. Lena is lonely having moved away from her family and friends in a busy New York City neighborhood. Lena tries to befriend Anne but in due time Anne does something in the local supermarket that alerts her to the fact that Anne may be more than unfriendly and snobbish. But Peter, Brian and Anne’s, son has become very close to Kate, Francis and Lena’s daughter. The scenes with young Peter in the house with his mother are poignant.
An explosive, violent incident ensues changing the parents lives forever and the children, who are inseparable, are forbidden to ever see each other again.
But this is Romeo and Juliet New York City style and we do a deep dive into the world of mental illness, alcoholism, recovery, and forgiveness. No one has to die in a story such as this but the deep wounds and scars are equally riveting as is the power of love, even in the most hostile circumstances.
I was fortunate to have seen Keane talking about this book in different mediums and settings.
May Beth Keane is a writer to watch. Although I haven’t yet read her book, Fever, the story of Typhoid Mary, it sounds like an interesting treatment of a woman we really know little about. It has been optioned for a film by Elizabeth Moss, who always does good work. Hope it happens.
The first was on a panel last fall at the Miami Book Fair in which she concentrated on the mental health aspects of the book. She spoke about the significant research both in institutional settings and with psychiatrists. One of the hospitals, Anne was transferred to in the novel was one I volunteered at as a student. Same approximate timeframe. She absolutely nailed the atmosphere as I remember it.
Then I saw her on Jimmy Fallon talking about her need to be authentic in her scenes about police and the language they use. She laughed and said she spent a lot of time in diners talking over eggs and coffee. Hard to be serious with Fallon, but she held her own. We didn’t get much of the book except how well it’s done. What a great opportunity for her!
The last time was a Scribner online book club. I had hoped to see the live talk so I could ask questions but was only able to see the recorded version. That didn’t reveal much. Apparently, she didn’t want to discuss the book thinking the audience hadn’t read it yet. She is a very poised, articulate woman. The themes of this book are complex and as she did say in that interview, there are questions she had that she wanted to explore more deeply. Who truly has the answers to questions of forgiveness when the echoes of the past are inescapable?
There were many finely drawn, interesting characters in this book. Some you might say you’d hate right off the bat but as time went on you might develop some understanding of their flaws and the reasons for their cataclysmic actions. I forgave all but one. ( If you’ve read the book, let me know which one you’d guess!).
Francis and Lena Gleeson were very real. Shades of gray. Heroic sometimes. Frustrating other. Blind, too. Their daughter, Kate, our quasi-tomgirl-then domestic-hard loving Juliet, was compelling from the get go. She kept us guessing.
Brian and Anne Stanhope were least likable but then… and Peter, well, a child in those circumstances? How will our Romeo grow up? His Uncle George was a favorite. He understood his weaknesses and did what he could to control them. And he knew how to love. How can you not love a character like him?
This was not an easy read. But I wanted to keep going to see what would happen. I pulled for them all the way and kept my eye open for some hint of the title. I’m always intrigued by titles and covers. Even this cover is not what it first seems. If you look at it quickly, it looked to me like a pleasing blue and green abstract but then look again and it is a town of pretty much look-a-like houses all in symmetry.
I would never have been drawn to the title. Would have skipped over it altogether. If truth be told, I went to the panel at the Miami Book Fair because I absolutely loved the book, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and May Beth Keane just happened to be one of the panelists. After she read an excerpt I was sold. At the online book club, someone asked her about the title. Good question, I thought. The line is at the end of the book but of all things, why choose that?
Keane said that toward writing the end of the book, she was reading a lot of books with optimism in them. (Of course she was!) One day, as she read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, she thought, that’s it, particularly because it was a line in the book:
“…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I…” It was Scribner who added the comma, in case you were wondering.
I didn’t find this to be an easy read. But I was glad I read it. It gave me hope that people are capable of much more generosity, grace and compassion than we may be seeing now in these stressed times.