In my post about books I gave people for Christmas, I talk about how Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane was my favourite book of 2019. I’ve been unable to stop recommending it to everyone I know so, in the spirit of efficiency, I thought it would be best to write a post further elaborating on why I thought it was so excellent and to recommend it to the internet at large.
Ask Again, Yes tells the story of two families, the Gleesons and the Stanhopes, over the course of their lives. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope become partners in their early days working for the New York Police Department and both choose to move out of the city with their new wives to the small town of Gillam to start families. Francis’ wife, the sociable Lena, quickly finds herself bored and lonely and reaches out to Brian’s wife, Anne, in the hopes that they can become friends. But Anne coldly rejects her offer of friendship, sowing the seeds of discord and distrust between the two families.
Years down the line, a friendship and, eventually, a romance blossoms between Francis and Lena’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s only son, Peter. However, the complex relationships and problems of the adults in their lives present obstacles to their budding relationship. This eventually culminates in a shocking act of violence that severs the connection between the two families and tears the young lovers apart.
While the plot of this novel is utterly gripping (I devoured it in two days), what I really loved about Ask Again, Yes was the nuance with which Keane treated each of her characters, allowing them to become more complex as the novel progressed. Characters who began the novel as ‘good guys’ were shown to be deeply flawed and those who initially seemed to be ‘bad guys’ gradually become less frightening and more sympathetic as we learned more about them. The extension of forgiveness and understanding, even to the most flawed characters, was deeply moving but I also appreciated the depiction of this forgiveness as a gift and a privilege. For instance, Peter’s eventual forgiveness of his mother was not born out of twisted filial obligation, but out a desire for himself to find solace and healing after the events of his childhood. Forgiveness is something that is for the benefit of the forgiver, not the forgiven.
In the hands of a less talented author, the events of Ask Again, Yes could seem melodramatic or overwrought but Keane paints a moving portrait of life’s complexities and hardships while never losing sight of its’ corresponding joys. So often in novels we see life’s extremes, with characters either living happily ever after or in protracted misery, but Ask Again, Yes offers the reader something different. The characters learn and grow together from their hardships and appreciate that these traumas are a price worth paying for the joy of being alive. At the novel’s end, the characters weigh up the choices they’ve made and the difficulties they faced and still conclude that their lives have been good and happy. It’s a moving reminder that happiness can be found even in life’s darkest periods and that in the end, it’s the big picture that matters.
At its heart, Ask Again, Yes is a beautiful and heartfelt story about the powers of forgiveness, love and family to pull even the most fragmented shards back together again to create something beautiful. If you were to ask me again whether I’d recommend this book, the answer would be a resounding yes.