2002 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction
Synopses & Reviews
Mary and ONeil frequently marveled at how, of all the lives they might have led, they had somehow found this one together. When they met at the Philadelphia high school where theyd come to teach, each had suffered a profound loss that had not healed. How likely was it that they could learn to trust, much less love, again?
Justin Cronins poignant debut traces the lives of Mary Olson and ONeil Burke, two vulnerable young teachers who rediscover in each other a world alive with promise and hope. From the formative experiences of their early adulthood to marriage, parenthood, and beyond, this novel in stories illuminates the moments of grace that enable Mary and ONeil to make peace with the deep emotional legacies that haunt them: the sudden, mysterious death of ONeils parents, Marys long-ago decision to end a pregnancy, ONeils sisters battle with illness and a troubled marriage. Alive with magical nuance and unexpected encounters, Mary and ONeil celebrates the uncommon in common lives, and the redemptive power of love.
Justin Cronin must have been a novelist in an earlier life. What
else could account for the mature insight and the beautifully
controlled technique we find in his debut novel?...Cronin
succeeds, touchingly and tenderly, in portraying life
itself as a triumph of hope over experience. The Boston Globe
A literary love story...about the fragility of good fortune
and the accidental ways of finding happiness. USA Today
An astonishingly good first novel...fully engaging from the
first paragraph. What a gift: to be able to live
alongside these people for a while. Ann Patchett, Chicago Tribune
Unanimously praised on its hardcover publication, Justin Cronin's poignant debut traces the lives of Mary Olson and O'Neil Burke, two vulnerable young teachers who rediscover in each other a world alive with promise and hope.
About the Author
Justin Cronin is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and associate professor of English at La Salle University. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Epoch, Greensboro Review,
and Crescent Review,
and in The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine.
He lives with his wife and their young daughter in Philadelphia.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups reading of Justin Cronins Mary and O'Neil, a collection of connected stories hailed as “an artful debut,” by The New York Times Book Review, and “an astonishingly good first novel,” by the Chicago Tribune.
1. The deaths of ONeils parents, Miriam and Arthur, in the opening story, “Last of the Leaves,” haunt ONeil throughout the rest of the book. When he and his sister, Kay, discover the credit card bill including the charge for the motel where Arthur and Miriam stopped on their fatal trip home, they are deeply disturbed, leading ONeil to realize “how little he truly knew about his parents.” And ONeil must come to accept that his parents lives were much more complicated and full of secrets than he had ever imagined. Was the accident that killed them completely an accident, or was it, in some way, an inevitable consequence of choices made? How do secrets kept and secrets shared figure throughout the stories in Mary and O'Neil
2. Among the pivotal events of Mary and ONeil are Miriam and Kays breast cancer; Marys abortion and later, the birth of her daughter, Nora; and Kays discovery of her husbands infidelity. As a man, is Justin Cronin able to understand and convey with honesty and accuracy, the thoughts, emotions, details and reactions of his women characters to these quintessentially female experiences?
3. In the story “Orphans,” Cronin describes how ONeil and Kay return to their childhood home to settle their parents affairs after the car accident. Cronin writes, “the weeks following their parents death passed quickly and became, for ONeil, a time of strange and unexpected contentment . . . with each trip to the Goodwill box behind the Price Chopper, each final phone call to a bank or loan company, he felt his parents becoming real to him in a way that they had never been in life. More than real: he felt them move inside him.” As he gets older, does ONeil become increasingly like either one, or both, of his parents? Is his marriage to Mary a mirror of-or a contrast to-Arthur and Miriams relationship?
4. Miriam and Kay had a difficult relationship. Miriam feels that she and her daughter never really got along, and describes Kay as indifferent to the rest of the family, withdrawn, self-absorbed and dismissive of Miriam. Mary, also, had a distant relationship with her mother. Compare the two mother-daughter relationships.
5. Are there similarities between Arthurs feelings for Dora in “Last of the Leaves” and ONeils brief encounter with Patrice in “Orphans?” Do these two romantic episodes indicate ways in which father and son are alike?