Make no mistake about it: those looking for sweeping, grandiose plots or white-knuckled suspense should probably look elsewhere than This Is How It Ends, set in Dublin, Ireland in 2008. MacMahon's debut novel, however, is just about perfect for a quiet read, perhaps wrapped in a sweater and holding a mug of tea on one of the first cool evenings of fall.
It's a quiet novel, after all, one that never shouts its themes or pounds its chest to call attention to itself; readers who settle in to its ambling pace will be rewarded with a carefully crafted, understated emotional novel about love, families, and coming to terms with even the most profound losses.
Addie occupies the grand narrative at the center of MacMahons novel. A woman who looks and even feels young, she is nevertheless starting to cope with the challenges aging parents, envy over her sisters fecundity, loneliness and regret of early middle age. And she has all but given up on romantic happiness. She's been deeply wounded before, not so long ago, and these days she contents herself with a circumscribed life that offers such quiet pleasures as swimming in the nearby surf, playing with her dog, and caring for her crotchety, ailing father. Although Addie is on the verge of countless unexpected changes, finding love is not something she would ever have foreseen in her immediate future.
Addie is hardly alone; virtually every character also occupies a transitional space, passing from one state to another, coping with endings of one sort or another. Addie's father, Hugh, is coping with the frailties of incipient old age and the knowledge that, thanks to a malpractice suit, hes unlikely ever to return to his love practicing medicine. Addie's love interest, Bruno, an American who has come to Ireland in search of his roots, is coming to terms with the loss of his job and his identity, as well as the desire to find a family and take one more crack at making one of his own. Addie's sister, Della, always thought Addie would be there to intervene between Della and their father. But once tragedy strikes, Della, whose hands-off parenting style compensates for the responsibilities she took on much earlier in life, must now acknowledge that this new and sudden loss will also result in new responsibilities for herself and for her family. Then there is the most profound loss of all that is at the center of Addie's story.
What MacMahon sets against this series of losses, however is an equally powerful series of small, hopeful moments, passages of great simplicity and beauty. "When she turned back to the window the view had disappeared," MacMahon writes of Addie and Bruno's bittersweet honeymoon. "All you could see was thick white cloud across everything, like a curtain. You could hear the sea, you knew it was there. You just couldn't see it."
These subtle moments, combined with MacMahon's matter-of-fact tone, illustrate not only that life goes on but that powerful dramas happen all the time, all around us, in families like Addie's and in our own. In the end, that is the overarching message of MacMahon's novel: Death happens, loss happens, tragedy happens every moment, all around us - but so does life. Filled with adorably winsome children and some of the best writing about dogs you'll come across, This Is How It Ends is a refreshingly honest approach to loss which will make readers eager to celebrate all that they hold dear.
This review is from the September 5, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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