Mary McGarry Morris
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It's a typical, post-party morning for Fiona Range. She's got an awful hangover, no memory of how she got home, and a snoring, unknown man in her bed. As Fiona extricates herself from the unconscious stranger's embrace, she berates herself for havingonce againpartied too hard and gotten involved in yet another one-night stand. But Fiona's morning is about to go from bad to downright miserable when she realizes that the "stranger" fleeing her apartment is Brad Gliddenthe husband of Fiona's friend Krissy, who spent the previous night in the hospital giving birth to their first child. As Fiona watches Brad burn rubber out of her driveway, she laments, "as usual, she hadn't been thinking, hadn't cared or been careful. And now this mess."
Mary McGarry Morris's bittersweet portrait of Fiona illustrates how expectations can shape a life. Fiona's mother, Natalie, was beautiful but wildsome said "trashy"and Patrick Grady, Fiona's supposed father, was an equally wild young man who returned from Vietnam both physically and psychically scarred by his experiences. Abandoned by Natalie and rejected by Patrick, Fiona was taken in by her maternal Aunt Arlene and her husband, the Honorable Judge Charles Hollis.
Although the Hollises provided for Fiona's material needs and raised her alongside their own three children, there was always tension between them. The Hollises' reserve was unspoken but its presence was as palpable to Fiona as the ghastly scar that disfigured Patrick's once-handsome face.
Throughout her life, "all [Fiona] wanted was someone who cared how she felt and what she thought about the simplest things, someone who would know when she left the room and keep glancing at the door until she returned." This longing for affection drove young Fiona to Todd Prescott, a local ne'er do well who promised her love buteven years after their breakupcontinually dragged her into his own tangled affairs with drugs and the law.
No one was surprised when Fiona dropped out of college to wait on tables at the local coffee shop while her cousins pursued more respectable professions. And when Fionaafter having misspent her twenties in and out of unfamiliar beds and too-familiar barsregisters for community college and tries to turn her life around, she quickly discovers that Dearborn, Massachusetts, is small-town America at its bestand worst. Everyone knows everyone else's business and, while Fiona's beauty and open-heartedness have won her a slew of admirers, her reckless behavior and poor judgement have earned her a bad reputation.
Fiona attempts to overcome her notoriety butdisheartened by her family's lack of supportfrequently backslides. Even her closest cousin, Elizabeth, a schoolteacher who recently returned to Dearborn with a doctor fiancé in tow, harshly judges Fiona's liaison with Brad without waiting to hear Fiona's side of the story. In her desperation for a blood connection with someone, Fiona pursues Patrick, ignoring rumors of mental instability and violence. Just as she imagines that her own wild streak is a legacy from her mother Natalie, Fiona romanticizes that her volatile temper and anti-social impulses are personality traits passed down to her from Patrick. This time, he does not shun her advances, but the relationship that he tries to establish is far from paternal.
The Hollises are alarmed by Fiona's increasing intimacy with Patrick but helpless to stop it. And through him, Fiona tries to unearth her complex family's secrets only to find herself being pulled into the bewildering love triangle between Elizabeth, her fiancé, and her childhood sweetheart. As the tension and danger mount, Fiona must confront difficult truths: about her parents, her family, and most of all about herself. Finally, she realizes that "no matter how long or far she ran, she would always be trying to outdistance one person and one person onlyFiona Range."
Mary McGarry Morris is the author of Vanished, nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award; A Dangerous Woman, chosen by Time magazine as one of the "Five Best Novels of the Year" and made into a major motion picture; Songs in Ordinary Time, an Oprah Book Club selection and a CBS television movie; and Fiona Range. She lives in Massachusetts.
Our initial introduction to Fiona is very risquéshe's hungover and can't even remember who the man in her bed iswhy did you choose to open the novel this way?
Instead of merely stating that Fiona Range is a party girl who can't say no to a good time, I wanted to put the reader "inside" Fiona at her most vulnerable. It was a way of conveying the remorse and bravado that have been her hallmark. I don't consider that scene risqué but pathetic. It is typical of the many "mornings-after" in Fiona's life. She is a strong, intelligent woman, yet once again her life has spun out of control. Her best excuses have begun to wear so thin that even she is disgusted by them.
All of your novels are set in small New England towns. What draws you to that particular setting? Did you grow up in a similar environment? Is Dearborn based upon a real town?
Born in Connecticut, raised in Vermont, and for most of my years now a Massachusetts resident living close by the New Hampshire border, I am certainly a New Englander. Though Dearborn may be fictional, it is like any American community that values fairness, honesty, hard work, and being a good neighbor. And as in every big city or small town, Dearborn's people are sinners, saints, wise men, and fools, all of whom we know we are, or have been at one time or another.
At one point in the novel, Fiona tells Terry that the Hollises "do good deeds the way most people knock on wood. It's not so much to help the other person as it is to cover themselves, to make themselves feel better." Do you agree? Does Judge Hollis only help Larry when he breaks the CVS window to make himself look good? Or does he have some genuine philanthropic motives?
Sometimes, charity is far easier given to a stranger on a dark night than to a pauper at our own table. Fiona is very cynical about the Hollis family's good works because she cannot understand the invisible wall she has always felt between herself and them. Judge Hollis's philanthropy has always been complicated, as labyrinthine in motive as its ensuing network of relationships. In helping Larry the Judge's innate kindness can only be tainted by the need to protect his family at any cost.
When Fiona and Elizabeth get together outside the Hollis home, Fiona usually stays relatively sober while Elizabeth gets drunk. Fiona has a healthy appetite while Elizabeth suffers from an eating disorder. Of the two, who do you think is the most victimized by the Hollises' expectations?
While both women suffer from their family's expectations, Fiona's appetites seem almost healthy compared to those of her rigid cousin. Elizabeth's sensitivities are so acute that her own needs have come to seem like terrible weakness, failures. As her emotional strength ebbs, she struggles to control her life through self-denial, a twisted discipline that Fiona cannot fathom.
Chester seems to care about Fiona's welfare and offers her sound advice. Why does Fiona resent his solicitousness as intrusion?
Throughout her life, Fiona has been criticized, analyzed, and advised until a flip remark has become her automatic reaction. She knows Chester's interest and concerns are genuine, but she doesn't want to hear what he has to say when it is the truth about herself.
Patrick is a terrifying character. How did you conceive of him? And what do you think motivated Patrickafter years of ignoring Fionato give in to her attentions?
Like so many strong characters Patrick Grady came full-blown into early musings about the novel. For me he is the product of betrayal on every level. Whenever he tried to do what he thought was right it only seemed to turn on him. He has festered in frustration and bitterness until all he has left is hate. And then Fiona's caring persistence touches an old nerve, numbing his feral defenses. For someone so long deprived of love, he needs her as desperately as he once needed her mother.
Writing a novel is a lengthy process that requires a lot of discipline. What is a typical work day like for you?
I am usually at my desk every morning at nine. The length of a work day depends on what stage I'm at in the novel. The first draft is the most arduous. There is pen, paper, and me, with often only the vaguest sense of where I'm going. Four or five hours seem to be the most I can stay at it. With the first draft completed the work day gets longer and easier as I begin typing it all into the computer. Time passes quickly then. Hours can be spent on a phrase, a morning on a paragraph. There are days when suddenly it's dinnertime and the glow from the screen is the only light in the house. I seldom write at night, but the characters have freest reign then, often forcing me to see what they have been trying to tell me about themselves all along. Sometimes it's exhilarating to know I'm on the right track after all. And sometimes it means tossing out weeks of work and starting all over again the next morning. The new novel I'm working on is untitled. The main character is a man in his forties who wants little from life other than the freedom to be left alone.
- Fiona is blamed as a seductress, while the men she has relations with are regarded as her victims. Is this an accurate assessment? Why do you think Elizabeth doesn't blame George for sleeping with Fiona?
- Rudy is aware of Fiona's promiscuous reputation but does not condemn her for it the way George does. How much of Fiona's "reputation" is based upon small-town morality? Do you think Fiona would have grown up differently in an urban environment?
- Are any of the Hollises genuinely happy? Why or why not? Were the Hollis children's feelings for Fiona affected more by their parents' attitude toward her or by Fiona's own actions? Do they love her?
- Was Elizabeth ever really in love with Rudy? Did she realize how drastically she was misleading him or were her perceptions too skewed by her fragile mental state? Was Rudy ever really in love with Elizabeth?
- More than anyone else in the novel, Chester is the paternal
figure in Fiona's life. How significant is it that he is the victim of Patrick's violence?
- How culpable is Aunt Arlene? What was her moral responsibility to her niece as well as to her own children?
- What is your opinion about what happens to the Hollis family, particularly Judge Hollis, at the end of the novel? Do you think Aunt Arlene did the right thing in staying with him?
- If you were Fiona, would you have remained in Dearborn after discovering the truth about your parentage?