Every month there seems to be another book steeped in the pandemic’s effect. All that time in lockdown must have gone to good use writing pandemic novels and now they’re all getting published, or at least ending up on my desk to review.
Caitlin Shetterly’s debut novel, Pete and Alice in Maine, confronts the pandemic head-on. The title is quite literal. Like so many privileged New Yorkers, Pete and Alice face the pandemic’s consequences by escaping the city. They flee their Manhattan apartment for their second home, taking up refuge in rural coastal Maine.
Pete works in finance and has plenty of money to provide for his wife and two children, and his job allows him to continue working remotely. Alice gives herself over to caring for their girls and building a new life at the rural property. And mirroring the lives of many coastal elites turned rural expats, Alice takes up domesticity like gardening and homemaking with a zeal.
The trouble for these two began months before the outbreak of COVID. Pete began an affair with an attractive colleague, Sonja, who splits her time and her life between New York and Europe. Alice is obviously displeased when she learns of this arrangement with “The Her.” Just before the lockdowns begin, Pete is with Sonja. His secret revealed, he’s run off with her, until the threat of COVID sends Pete scurrying back to Alice and his daughters.
The family escape the city, but are temporarily imprisoned at their home. The locals, all too happy to take Pete and Alice’s money working for the couple maintaining and opening up their summer house each year, are also so afraid of COVID they cut down several trees at the end of the driveway to block them in for a two-week quarantine.
Pete and Alice are on separate journeys even while living under the same house. Pete continues working, throwing himself at the job. Perhaps he’s simply avoiding his wife and his children. Alice, on the other hand, explores the alternative to the capitalistic rat race. She reconnects with nature and as the year progresses, her reluctance to return seems as much rooted in an interest in this new lifestyle than in fears of COVID. As far as pandemic protocols go, Alice comes down as more cautious than most.
The narrative spends a lot of time in flashbacks with Alice reflecting on her marriage with Pete and their lives before the pandemic. Dramatically, it makes sense to start the novel with the family fleeing to Maine, but the flashbacks disrupt the flow of the plot. It is necessary information and helps shape our understanding of the relationship Pete and Alice have, but also clogs up the progress of the novel moving forward, distracting us from the slow evolution of Alice living her best life in Maine.
The novel is as much a critique of parenting as it is of marriage.Their daughters are too young to be left unattended, but old enough to understand the discord between their parents. The children serve both as a reason for Pete and Alice to stay married despite the infidelity, but also as a major illustration of the challenges of the pandemic. While many people went through personal revolutions or had epiphanies, there were others who struggled with the very effect of isolation.
There is constant tension between Pete, who wants to return to the city and to their lives they had there, and Alice, who is undergoing an awakening of spirit. Pete is more satisfied with his old life, and spends most of his time yearning to return to it. Alice is more interested in exploring the alternative ending. It’s reflective of an internal struggle in many of us today—–a desire to return to normal, while also a desire to retain the best parts of lockdown.
Near the end of the year, Alice buys a hutch from an old woman. The large piece of furniture is dropped off at their house and she and Pete need to carry it inside. The locals, once afraid of New York’s COVID, now refuse to wear masks, and so neither Pete nor Alice want them in the house. The furniture is too large for the couple to move alone, and they get it stuck in their front door. Pete stands on one side, Alice on the other. Only Pete has the right angle to see where the hutch has gotten caught. The hutch physically separates these two people. So much of the novel seems to be building toward this moment. Alice, who has bought the hutch on a whim, has been fully won over as though she belongs to this rural place, while Pete, who yearns for the city, is irritated by the hutch. And yet, Alice doesn’t fit here, just as the hutch doesn’t fit inside their house.
The final pages of the novel hit. They are unexpected, twisting around the characters in the very last moments of the text to rewrite the outcomes they seem to be careening towards. The unevenness of the first portion of the narrative is worth the journey to get to this place. But don’t expect an easy resolution—and that’s exactly the point. The ups and downs of relationships are complicated and twice as much when there are children, and all of these elements are amplified by the trauma of the pandemic.
Shetterly has captured the anxiety of the COVID pandemic. She has painted two portraits in Pete and Alice illustrating two distinct approaches to the calamity. There are moments in the book that capture the experience of running away in a pitch perfect tone. It is a reminder, too, that in marriage and parenthood, finding a match who sings the same song on the bigger issues is important. As for Alice, Shetterly leaves us wondering if her desires are achievable, or even something she would recognize. The pandemic magnified our anxieties, and showed us alternatives. For Pete and Alice, this shift seems only a detour, delaying the journey of their lives, but ultimately not changing the destination.
Pete and Alice in Maine
By Caitlin Shetterly
Published July 4, 2023
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.