“Ask Again” Yes’ Is A Profound Yet Unpretentious Family Drama
Mary Beth Keane’s new novel is called Ask Again, Yes.
What’s it called again?
That’s what everyone I’ve raved to about this book has said to me a couple of minutes after I’ve told them the title. It’s one of those delicate titles that instantly goes poof! into the air; but that’s the only strike there is against Keane’s novel which is, otherwise, one of the most unpretentiously profound books I’ve read in a long time.
Ask Again, Yes opens up in 1973 in New York City. Books about the dilapidated New York of the ’70s and ’80s have been having “a moment” ever since Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, was published in 2010 and, though Keane’s novel, which takes place far away from Smith’s punk hangouts, goes on to span 40 years, its opening scene of a city gone haywire sets the emotional mood for the story that follows.
Two rookie cops, an Irish immigrant named Francis Gleeson and his partner, Brian Stanhope, are on foot patrol in the Bronx when they answer a call about an armed robbery in progress at a nearby bodega. When they arrive they find the owner lying dead in a pool of blood. Francis, who’s a sensitive young guy, is overwhelmed for a minute by the career he’s pretty much just fallen into. He reflects that:
“There was no predicting where life would go. There was no real way for a person to try something out, [just] see if he liked it — the words he’d chosen when he told his uncle … that he’d gotten into the police academy — because you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it’s who you are. One minute he’d been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic and the next thing he knew he was a cop. In America. In the worst neighborhood of the best known city in the world.
Francis’ meditation on how a series of happenstances solidify into a life is what Keane so beautifully dramatizes in Ask Again, Yes. Both young cops get married and within a few years wind up living next door to each other in a suburb just north of the city. Two of their kids become close, but the couples don’t, mostly because Brian’s wife, a nurse named Anne, is “off,” in a way nobody has the therapeutic language at that time to grasp. Then, about 20 years into the story, a horrible incident takes place. And the world that solidified by happenstance for Francis and all the other characters here, blows apart in the same way.
By switching perspective in every chapter, so that the narrative moves forward through the voice and world view of almost every member of the two families here, Keane develops her characters far beyond glib stereotypes. There’s Francis, his shrewd Italian-Polish wife, Lena, and Kate, the youngest of their three daughters, who’s been joined at the hip since childhood with Peter, the Stanhope’s neglected son.
And then there’s Anne, living with mental illness: In a jittery and terrifying scene that weds the mundane to the mad, we enter into Anne’s mind on New Year’s Eve 1990, when she makes a trip to the local supermarket deli counter, takes her number, waits, and, then, with mounting rage, comes to believe that everyone else in the supermarket is in cahoots to prevent her from buying her cold cuts.
Though Keane is younger than most of her characters, she writes with deep familiarity and precision about the lives of this particular generation of blue-collar Catholic New Yorkers. (And by the way, this was the geography, concrete and cultural, that I was born into, so I know whereof I speak.) In particular, Keane “gets” the power of silence that was, back then, the universal antidote for dealing with all manner of so-called “embarrassing” personal problems, from mental illness to alcoholism.
As a writer, Keane reminds me a lot of Ann Patchett: Both have the magical ability to seem to be telling “only” a closely-observed domestic tale that transforms into something else deep and, yes, universal. In Keane’s case, that “something else” is a story about forgiveness and acceptance — qualities that sound gooey, but are so hard to achieve in life.
And, in the final moments of this modestly magnificent novel, even that blah title of Ask Again, Yes is ingeniously redeemed.
Stunning! An absolutely brilliant, gorgeously-written novel by a fearless writer. Ask Again, Yes is both haunting and hopeful, like life itself. It’s the consummate epic family story, one I can’t stop thinking and talking about. A must-read for our time * Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women *
The new Little Fires Everywhere . . . Exploring mental health, grief, forgiveness and love, this conjures up the work of Celeste Ng and Anne Tyler – and we can’t give higher praise than that. The perfect summer read * Stylist *
Immersive and deeply moving — Anna Hope, author of Expectation
A wonderful novel about a lifetime of love . . . Focusing on a small cast over several decades allows Keane to explore universal themes: marriage, family, betrayal and forgiveness. Above all, what is a good life well lived? * Daily Mail *
One of the most exceptional novels of the summer . . . Has the makings of a future classic. Keane’s prose is spare and elegant and she writes about mental illness and alcholism with compassion. It’s a remarkable achievement * Sunday Express *
I adored this book. I sank completely into the world of this novel and loved being there from beginning to end. Ask Again, Yes reminds us that after happily-ever-after comes the grit and grief of everyday love: in-laws, illnesses, betrayals and, scariest of all, the flaws that each partner will uncover in the other. It’s an absolute stunner, an ode to family and forgiveness that has been crafted with compassion and insight * Sara Collins, bestselling author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton *
Compelling . . . it is neighbourly conflict, not love, that drives this quietly devastating story . . . There are multiple twists skilfully delivered. The novel raises a series of profound questions . . . [and] as an exploration of parent-child relationships, the novel is both thoughtful and powerful * Hannah Beckerman, i news *
This is one beautiful book. I was wowed by Keane’s writing and narrative skill – and by what she knows about trouble — Stephen King
I absolutely adored Ask Again, Yes. I was only a few chapters in when I knew Mary Beth Keane was about to become one of my favourite authors. I’ll read everything she writes * Liane Moriarty *
A pleasantly accessible novel that will be popular with book clubs … Keane is a nuanced observer * The Sunday Times *
A novel of great compassion and understanding . . . rich with story * John Boyne, Irish Times *
Powerful and moving . . . Mary Beth Keane is a writer of extraordinary depth, feeling and wit. Readers will love this book, as I did * Meg Wolitzer, bestselling author of The Female Persuasion *
One of the most exceptional novels of the summer . . . Has the makings of a future classic * Daily Mirror *
Leaves one shaking one’s head in frank admiration. A triumph * Matthew Thomas, bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves *
Keane takes on one of the most difficult problems in fiction – how to write about human decency . . . a compelling case for compassion over blame, understanding over grudge, and the resilience of hearts that can accept the contradictions of love * Louise Erdrich, National book award winning author of The Round House *
A shocking tragedy turns what had been a portrait of domestic tension into a profound story of trauma and blame. Keane’s gracefully restrained prose gives her characters dignity * Vogue *
A beautiful novel, bursting at the seams with empathy * Elle *
A powerful tale * Woman & Home *
A captivating, authentic and intricately-woven story . . . Immensely affecting, this book poses big questions. Can we ever escape our history? Are we prisoners of our bloodlines? Ultimately, this book is an examination of love – familial and romantic. It is an epic story, quietly told. And it is all the better for that * Irish Sunday Independent *
A story with real heart – moving and subtle and often very touching * Literary Review *
If tense family dramas are your thing, you’ll love this. I found this story hugely engrossing and the characters so well-drawn, I became completely invested in their lives * Good Housekeeping *
A candidate for one of my best books of the year. I savoured every word of this eloquent, lyrical novel, which explores how the secrets that families carry can effect future generations . . . I was swept up in the drama * Prima *
An explosive study of family dynamics . . . moving and thought-provoking . . . a gripping family saga that tackles mental illness and addiction and explores how childhood can inescapably shape the future * Daily Express *
Fans of Liane Moriarty, meet your new favourite author * Red *
Family ties are stretched to breaking point in the baking hot New York summer of 1973 . . . A book that’s full of life lessons for people in a particular stage of their lives * Mariella Frostrup, BBC Radio 4 Open Book *
Keane draws two families in sharp, moving detail, effortlessly peeling back decades of history to look at friendship, mental health, and the changing and sometimes warped face of love * Sunday Post *
A rare example of propulsive storytelling infused with profound insights about blame, forgiveness and abiding love * People *
Displaying impressive reach . . . Keane delivers an epic of domestic emotional turmoil . . . Tender and patient, the novel avoids excessive sweetness while planting itself deep in the soil of commitment and attachment. Graceful and mature. A solidly satisfying, immersive read * Kirkus, starred review *
An immersive read about family secrets and redemption * Editor’s Choice, Bookseller *
A gut-wrenching tale centered around the families of two rookie, next-door neighbor NYPD cops and a tragedy that reverberates over four decades. The book revolves around the bond between their children, the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness * Good Morning America Summer Reads *
One of the most unpretentiously profound books I’ve read in a long time . . . As a writer, Keane reminds me a lot of Ann Pratchett; Both have the magical ability to seem to be telling “only” a closely-observed domestic tale that transforms into something else deep and, yes, universal. In Keane’s case, that “something else” is a story about forgiveness and acceptance – qualities that sound gooey, but are so hard to achieve in life . . . Modestly magnificent * Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air *
An Updikean epic of intertwined families destabilized by grief and estrangement following a mother’s breakdown, then redeemed by their enduring compassion for one another * Best Books by Women Summer 2019, OPRAH Magazine *
10 new books to read this August * SheerLuxe *
A powerful tale of two neighbouring families forever entwined by love and tragedy. . . A touching read * Woman’s Weekly *
Mary Beth Keane draws two families in sharp, moving detail . . . With hints of Curtis Sittenfeld about it – the way it effortlessly unspools years, but buffets you with a huge amount of detail – it considers friendship and mental ill health, how love changes and warps, and despite a fairly slow start, does so beautifully * The Herald *
Poignant and powerful * Image *
A miniature epic . . . like Elizabeth Strout, Keane is good at creating distinctive characters – flawed, empathetic men and women whose inner landscapes she captures in powerful, pared-down prose. The novel is a nuanced portrait of the impact of mental illness and addiction, the limitations and endurance of love and of how ‘we repeat what we don’t repair’ * Belfast Telegraph *
A thought-provoking read exploring mental illness, alcoholism and violence * Candis *
Fans of Celeste Ng will love this modern American novel based on two families linked by tragedy and passion . . . A lovely mix of childhood memories growing in to adulthood, and its really powerful * Stellar *
With the author’s deftness of touch, characters are rendered as real as those you encounter in daily life, and it’s hard not to think about them even after reading the last pages * Connaught Telegraph *
An engrossing drama about family, forbidden love, the toll of mental illness and the power of mercy * People Magazine *
A powerful novel about mental illness, alcoholism, love and redemption * Daily Express *
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is an ambitious novel about regret, mistakes and forgiveness. It’s not as impactful as I expected but there are some memorable scenes.
This is one of those novels that receive plenty of buzz. The good is obvious—awareness of the novel and more purchasing chances. But sometimes when a book is talked about so much—it’s hard to match the expectations. And while I did find the book interesting, it was lacking in some areas for me.
Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come. Lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next 40 years.
Slow burn read
From Little Fires Everywhere to A Place For Us, I do really enjoy a slow burn read (aka literary fiction). Oftentimes, I see criticism of these types of novels is when people complain not much really happens. And that’s not exactly accurate as usually there’s some huge, traumatic event and the novels follow the before, the event itself and the consequences. But much of the before and after, is kind of quiet—and that’s definitely the point. However, the key with these kinds of reads is that you need at least one character that you care about.
And this brings me back to Ask Again, Yes. Of all the characters, I was most interested in Peter’s storyline. But with key scenes and developments, oftentimes the reader finds out about it after the fact. For instance, the love story between Kate and Peter—a good portion happens off the pages. Time moves really fast in this story and I felt perplexed as to why we (the readers) weren’t able to be there for major scenes. There’s many characters in this story and the viewpoint can switch even on one page. There was one character in particular I felt could have had a reduced role, as far as narration, while still having an impact.
Moving on from character focus, the story does center on the very relevant theme of forgiveness. There are some intense, sad and engaging scenes in this book. Honestly, this one is really more sad oftentimes than not. Characters are cruel and hurt each other (both physically and emotionally). But a story about forgiveness is always important. There are some scenes in this novel that truly are heart-wrenching. With these quiet books, just a simple gesture or (lack thereof) can have such a huge influence on the reader.
It also really tests what one can tolerate and how many times they can forgive the same person—even if they are family. It shows how strong people can be. Forgiveness is not weak but a strength in this book.
I’ve seen people love this novel and others strongly dislike it. I’m in the middle—I liked it and there are powerful sections. That said, some of the writing choices and focus on different characters did take away from the story for me.
Final thoughts: for those who enjoy literary fiction and slow burn reads, this is one to add to your list. If those are not books you gravitate towards, there are plenty of other books that you should check out. If you do pick this one up, your book club will have a TON to discuss. Click here for my book club questions.