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Ask Again, Yes

Review

Ask Again, Yes

Combining hauntingly beautiful prose with a keen insight into emotional trauma, Mary Beth Keane’s ASK AGAIN, YES is a riveting tour de force about dysfunctional families, loyalty and the desperation of two families trying to stay afloat amid a resounding tragedy.

The novel begins in the Bronx in 1973, as rookie policeman Francis Gleeson is preparing to head out on a job with Brian Stanhope, a fellow newbie. The two are not particularly close --- Francis, recently emigrated from Ireland, is more of the stoic sort, while Brian is a chatty American (though he’s quick to tell Francis that he's Irish too, just “back a ways”) --- but as rookies, who happened to sign up at the same time, they end up as partners. In the context of the book, they are intriguing at first for how perfectly normal they appear. They worry about patrolling the bad sides of town, drink with their fellow officers, and dream about the girls they will marry: Polish-Italian Lena for Francis and Irish Anne for Brian.

Despite his introspective, no-nonsense demeanor, Francis is troubled by the things he sees on the job and convinces his wife, Lena, that the two should move outside of the city, where he can be Francis Gleeson and not Officer Gleeson. They settle in the quaint town of Gillam, and before long are joined by a baby girl, Natalie. Lena, who has settled into the housewife life quickly and devotedly, is pregnant again less than a year later when the empty house next door is purchased by new owners.

As excited as Lena is for the company --- and the prospect of future children to play with her own --- she is shocked to learn that Francis not only knows their new neighbors, but was once partnered with the husband, Brian. Lena tries every trick she knows to befriend the couple, but the wife, Anne, is quiet and standoffish. One day, Anne yells at Lena, accusing her of both insulting her and trying to flatter her husband, and it seems that all offers of friendship are off the table.

"Keane has created something wholly unique with ASK AGAIN, YES, a masterful book that will stay with anyone who reads it."

Of course, neither the Gleesons nor the Stanhopes could possibly know that their children, Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, would one day become friends, and later, as young teens, fall in love. The Gleesons are too preoccupied raising three daughters to notice the goings-on of their neighbors, but inside the Stanhope house, Peter is dealing with a mother who is battling a serious undiagnosed mental disorder and a father whose laziness is trumped only by his selfishness.

With Anne growing more and more unstable, the rift between the two families seems insurmountable...until the night a 14-year-old Peter asks Kate to meet him outside at midnight. Their innocent encounter forces the families to confront one another head-on, and a shocking, absolutely unpredictable act of violence.

ASK AGAIN, YES is a story that is difficult to summarize without spoiling too much, so I will say that despite their families forbidding them to see one another, Kate and Peter do find their way back to each other again and again. Keane is a master of character study, and her book is full of empathy, insight and an unparalleled ability to capture human nature in a succinct yet gorgeous manner. Together and apart, Kate and Peter face mental illness, the mortality of their parents, struggles of loyalty, addiction, sickness and so much more.

This is a heavy novel, but not a gratuitously or voyeuristically issue-filled one. Keane gives each issue the appropriate attention and weight, but integrates each one so well that you almost do not notice how she is doing it. Larger events like death, marriage and birth occur almost in the background, as they do in life, with the smaller idiosyncrasies, hurts and betrayals taking the foreground in Keane’s careful, crafty hands.

Between the Gleesons, the Stanhopes, and the new family that Kate and Peter form, ASK AGAIN, YES has no shortage of interesting, complex characters. If I had to say what Keane did best in this book, it would be knowing exactly which character should be speaking at which point. Authors have been called choreographers before, but I have never felt the comparison more fitting than with Keane, who possesses an uncanny ability to inhabit her characters’ minds at exactly the right times. She does not waste a single word, and it was often her shorter phrases that packed the biggest punches. She is clearly someone who has studied the relationships around her as research, and though I would not call this book sentimental, it is powerfully sensitive and heartfelt.

For Keane’s characters, trauma seems like an inheritable trait, but even the victims in this book are never wholly innocent. It would be easy to say that there is a villain here, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all of Keane’s characters are equally villainous, heroic and tortured. Their journeys are profound and humbling, and Keane has created something wholly unique with ASK AGAIN, YES, a masterful book that will stay with anyone who reads it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 31, 2019

Ask Again, Yes
by Mary Beth Keane

  • Publication Date: May 28, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1982106980
  • ISBN-13: 9781982106980