Betty Smith is best known for her novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I love that book but had no idea she’d written anything else until I happened upon an attractive copy of Maggie-Now at a used book sale. And, it turns out, it’s a pretty great book, too.
Published in 1958, the novel is simply the story of a woman’s life, from before her birth into middle age. It begins in Ireland with her father Patrick. Patrick is in love with a girl named Maggie, but his mother objects to his getting married and he eventually decides to leave Ireland altogether. In Brooklyn, he meets Mary, and they get married and have a daughter named Maggie, eventually nicknamed Maggie-Now, because her parents are always telling her, “Maggie, now give me those scissors” and “Maggie, now mind your father.”
I can understand why this book isn’t as popular as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For one thing, Maggie-Now isn’t the curious bookish girl that Francie is. She has spirit, but a lot of her spirit is directed at wanting to do for others, even when it isn’t the best choice for her. And that tendency is most evident in her attitude toward both her father and her husband, both of whom treat her badly but whom she continues to take care of, out of filial obligation and romantic devotion. Although Francie also has some terrible relationships, this book focuses on how those relationships play out well into Maggie-Now’s middle age, and it is something of a downer.
So why did I enjoy it? For one thing, I think this is how life is sometimes. People like Maggie-Now exist and sometimes even find a way to be happy in situations many of us would find unacceptable. And, although Maggie gets aggravated at her father’s complaining and frustrated at her husband’s wandering, she is, on the whole, reasonably contented with her life. She finds her happiness where she can get it, and that’s how life works sometimes. And there are moments of comedy and levity amid the difficulties.
I also loved the period details. I am a sucker for period details. The novel is set in the early 20th century, and there’s lots about how people lived, what they ate, how they organized their homes, how they shopped, how they earned money, how the neighborhood evolved, and so on. It’s great. It’s not a book specifically about World War I and the Great Depression, although both of those events factor into Maggie-Now’s life. It’s more a book about how people lived in a time that happened to include World War I and the Great Depression. The people’s lives take precedence over the events.