I am glad I finally got around to reading Maggie-Now. Like Smith’s other novels, it is set in Brooklyn during the early 1900’s. The story begins with Patsy, an Irish immigrant who married the daughter of the house where he worked as a stable boy in New York. Their first daughter was Maggie. But the mother was frail and died giving birth to her next child, a son. So Maggie spent her childhood raising her younger brother. She was not particularly intelligent but honest, generous and good at heart. She passed up a chance to marry a well-respected boy because she fell in love with a handsome stranger, who flattered and charmed her. None of her family liked Claude, who consistently dodged questions about his family and his past. After they were married, Claude took to disappearing every spring, coming home in winter and never telling where he’d gone. Maggie patiently waited for him every year, bearing the suspicions of family and neighbors, filling her days with caring for others. When I told my husband part of the story he laughed and said: “I know where he goes!” suspecting the guy had another family, a secret second life. But it turned out to be something quite different, after all.
This is a quiet story. It tells about ordinary people, who never do anything particularly spectacular. It shows how they live day-to-day (interesting in a historical sense), how Maggie and all those of her family connect to each other, reach out to their neighbors, influence and touch each other with their lives. In many ways the story is unbearably sad, ironic and unfulfilling. All Maggie wants is to pour herself into others, to care for them and feel needed. And yet the man she loves most always leaves her behind, and keeps secrets from her. Patsy’s sole aim in life appears to be making others miserable, yet at the end it seems he really did hold some grudging respect for the man his daughter loved- either that, or his last act (in the novel) was pure spite to poke a finger in her misery. I’ll never understand it, but that’s what compels me about the story.
This isn’t as wonderful as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (one of my favorite books) but it’s still a good read. I had a copy of another Betty Smith novel, Joy in the Morning, which I had trouble getting into and quit once. But Maggie-Now has made me want to try the others again. Her fourth book, which I haven’t read yet, is Tomorrow Will Be Better.