BOOK REVIEW: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

★★★★★ / 5

Given that I’ve been moving at a glacial pace with my book reviews lately, I figured it would be a while before I ever got to ASK AGAIN, YES. But then again, the books on my TBR pile tend to get waylaid for whatever is the newest and buzziest, which wound up being exactly what happened here. (This, of course, doesn’t mean I’m ever on time with my reviews.) Like everyone else over on bookstagram, this title from Mary Beth Keane and Scribner has been all over my feed, and somehow despite this, I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided on a whim to pick it up. Of three things I was sure: 1) this title had a beautiful package, 2) the people I follow were speeding through it, and 3) it was loved and enjoyed across the board. Sure, it’s a gorgeous book, and not only has this been the quickest read of 2019 (it took me one evening), but it’s also joined my handful of five star reads for the year. I’d even hazard to say this earned its spot as my favorite book of 2019 so far.

Lena and Francis Gleeson move to the suburbs of New York City after they are freshly married, followed soon after by another young couple, the Stanhopes. Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson are colleagues as rookie cops on the NYPD, but the proximity of their professional and personal lives isn’t enough to stop the heartbreaking chain of events that changes the trajectory of their futures. Anne Stanhope never lets their son Peter become too friendly with the Gleeson kids next door, which doesn’t stop Peter from growing up with a love for the Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate. Anne’s dislike for Kate has less to do with the girl herself and more with Anne’s instability. It is the consequences of her instability that entwine Peter and Kate for years to come–a love story that is defined by, and defies, the immeasurable pain of their families’ history.

Here is your warning: there are spoilers ahead!

If it wasn’t immediate to those who read the plot summary, mine or the jacket copy, this is a story primarily rooted in a portrait of Anne Stanhope’s mental illness. While this isn’t a new theme, especially in contemporary literary fiction, I appreciate that Keane was unapologetic in her depiction of Anne, whose illness manifests itself in particularly violent and volatile ways. Anne is an illogical person, and the degree of her sickness is severe–there is very little hope that she will get better. It doesn’t appear as if Anne wants, or knows, an alternative; she possesses little to no self-awareness. Keane has done an impeccable job of veering away from the saccharine and the hopeful–paths that a lot of these narratives often take. Treatment doesn’t always come in the nick of time relieve us from devastation.

Characters, and their quiet refusal to do what the readers hope they would do, are Keane’s strong suit. Peter and Francis, both bystanders and victims of Anne’s choices, are not wholly innocent. Peter, as an adult, avoids admitting to his own alcoholism rather than immediately seeking help, knowing full well the consequences of letting a disease like his go unchecked. Francis, painstakingly cared for by Lena after Anne shoots him in the face, cheats on his wife just so he can reclaim some of the desirability and manhood he lost. When Kate and Peter get married, Kate doesn’t coddle Peter or accept his drinking because of their trauma. While at times she seems harsh, and perhaps a bit unrelenting, Kate demands Peter be better. It is Keane’s subtle and masterful craft that teeters their marriage on failure, not only because of their past, but because of their present choices.

Keane presents readers and her characters with the opportunity for human weakness and takes it. The effect on readers is distressing but extraordinary. The only time I put the book down in the single evening I read it was to cry about whatever I had just read. If you are looking for a book to break your heart this year, ASK AGAIN, YES is the book for 2019.