Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane


Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are two NYPD rookies assigned to the same Bronx precinct in 1973. They aren’t close friends on the job, but end up living next door to each other outside the city. What goes on 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 stunning events to come.

Ask Again, Yes by award-winning author Mary Beth Keane, is a beautifully moving exploration of the friendship and love that blossoms between Francis’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian’s son, Peter, who are born six months apart. In the spring of Kate and Peter’s eighth grade year a violent event divides the neighbors, the Stanhopes are forced to move away, and the children are forbidden to have any further contact.

But Kate and Peter find a way back to each other, and their relationship is tested by the echoes from their past. Ask Again, Yes reveals how the events of childhood look different when reexamined from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace, and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

RATING: ☆★☆★

Lying in my bed at night, after finishing this book, I found myself unwilling audience to a seethe of clashing thoughts about the story, like watching a flickering home movie projected into a makeshift screen. My mind refused to release me to oblivion, and, although the ending does bring to one’s mind the setting of one’s soul at ease and the wheeling of stars into alignment, I turned the last page feeling heavier with what I knew. I still do.

So, what’s this book about?

Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson are friends, but perhaps “friends” is an inaccurate word to use. They moved into neighboring homes in the small town of Gillam with their respective new brides, Anne and Lena, but mainly were thrown together by the fact that they were both rookie cops in a tough Bronx precinct—a situation which, at the time, did not seem necessarily unpropitious. Francis’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian’s only son, Peter, sought true friendship in the golden harbor of each other’s arms, but tragedy found them first. Violence and towering rage were like a leak that stole all the air from their homes, and soon, a final invisible mooring line snapped, and Kate and Peter were both cast adrift.

Years later, Kate and Peter are still rummaging the dark, and each other, for happiness, spitting the past out behind them and throwing themselves into the future. But once unearthed, there was no containing the memories, and they are soon being hunted by all the sorrows they had collected over the years—their whole arsenal, turned against them. Kate and Peter will soon find out that tragedies do not immunize you against further tragedies, misfortune doesn’t get scattered around in fair proportions, and the past could become a stone that quickly drags you to the depths when “you repeat what you do not repair.”

The plot of Ask Again, Yes, for a while, has some trouble catching flight, but as the families’ tragedy is dragged to the fore, the depth of the author’s storytelling prowess unveils itself. There’s a vicious grace and a soul-baring emotional honesty to the novel, and Keane has deftly crafted a masterly wrought diorama full of realistically rendered relationships and tensions, observations about family, the ties that bind mothers and sons even through years of separation, and the ways love ferments in the airless conditions of unaddressed trauma. The author invites us into the low-lit corners of every household at those tremulous moments in which the whole human condition is suddenly within reach, if heartbreakingly so, and the story she tells, as strange in its specificity as it is, remains universal in its familiarity.

One of the novel’s most poignant successes is the way Keane challenges her readers—and characters—by offering a myriad of angles on the events, and infusing each with enough complexity to make them lodge themselves in the reader’s mind. The tragedy that has befallen the Gleeson and Stanhope families is disinterred throughout the novel, reexamined and re-discussed. Loose threads are picked out of every version and efforts are made to knit it all together in order to make a single, comprehensible tale.

Keane lets every character speak for themselves, and lets the reader decide which character should capture their allegiance. She never ignores their faults, their achingly human proneness to self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, and despite myself, I often suffered a deep pang of sympathy for them. That’s what good storytelling does, I think—it transforms a character from a tangential sketch into a human being, links “us” to “them.”

Ask Again, Yes is irreversibly sanguine; but it isn’t the easiest read. It’s a dark, disturbing book; and as you read the novel, it is impossible to dislodge a sense of foreboding from your mind—the feeling like seeing a shark’s fin vanishing beneath the waves. We do not so much wonder what might happen as worry about what will happen. That haunted atmosphere permeates every page, and I could feel the dread stirring in me like ash as Kate and Peter stubbornly carry the hopelessness none of them would utter before them, hoping for the other to filch it away.

But Ask Again, Yes is more than just another story about a family with little to offer but a sad history. There’s plenty of nuance, dimension and empathy to Keane’s novel. Ask Again, Yes provides a potently visceral portrait of what it’s like to live with mental illness, while delicately probing the long-lasting repercussions of its non-treatment. The layered narrative across the decades does a good job of showing how attitudes towards mental illness are changing for the better—but we still have a long way to go.

At the novel’s heart also lurks the certainty that the things one is made to endure in childhood could not be undone and would steer their fates for many years to come, that the pain suffered in youth is bound to leave a rotten place, like a bruise on fruit, somewhere on one’s soul. “The beginning of one’s life matters the most,” writes Keane, “life is top-heavy that way.” Even so, Ask Again, Yes, wades through the darkness with heart. Hope makes an appearance (or, if anything, the last stage before hope becomes attainable). Hope that no matter how far you travel away from your loved ones, it’ll come a day when you will make out each other’s silhouettes again. That you may have given each other wounds, but they are not always mortal.

“Things are better now, they feel like they’re getting better—don’t they? But there might be more coming. This might be the least of it. Have you thought about that? We knew nothing about what it meant to grow up, to be partners, parents, all of it. Nothing. And maybe we still don’t. Would you have said yes back then if you’d known?”
“But I know now. So ask me.”
But he couldn’t find the right words. “I’ll give you a hint,” she said, squeezing his hands until he looked up to meet her eyes. “Then and now, I say yes.”

Ask Again, Yes is a hugely sensitive and deeply humanizing story about the never-ending ache of love and loss. Not to be missed!

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