Mary Beth Keane is a new author for me and her latest book, Ask Again, Yes, has rocketed into the public consciousness lately. I couldn’t resist giving it a listen after a friend commented on its emotional ending. Plus, it was chosen for The Tonight Show’s Summer Reads. All good reasons in my book.

Ask Again, Yes is a character-driven novel with some intense events. Imagine looking into your neighbor’ windows, hearing and seeing everything. This book is like that. It explores family relationships, mental health and its treatment, and intimate relationships. Set in the last decades of the 20th century, it explores the social mores of the time too. I really liked it, but wouldn’t go so far as saying I loved it.

Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson are both New York City cops, from different backgrounds. As they marry and move up in the ranks, they also buy homes next door to each other in a Westchester County suburb. Their wives, Anne and Lena, respectively, are markedly different from each other. Anne is a prickly recent immigrant from Ireland. Lena comes from a big local family and is more ebullient and open. The families never quite connect.

But the Stanhope’s only son, Peter, and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate are born just a few months from each other. They grow up as best friends and buddies, with an unexpected emotional connection.

Just as they reach their teens, the two families experience an event that changes everyone’s lives. The event is equal parts tragic and intense. I can’t give a thing away, except to say that it happens in the first third of the book. It isn’t really the climax, but the thing which makes the character studies so unique for the remainder of the book. Keane excavates the details how each of the adults and the two young people cope after such a shocker.

My conclusions

Keane smoothly switches back and forth among the characters’ viewpoints, and I cared about all of them. A complex story like this has to be told by a variety of voices, so that readers see all the angles. And yet, like all good novels, no one character understands everything. It only becomes clear late in the book when they process events together.

Just when you think something is going to blow up, Keane uses softness to explore emotions. And when you think the next moment will be quiet, she injects something unexpected. Throughout the story, she sticks to the basics of life. For example, how teenagers plan for college. Or who in the family picks up the pieces.

But, her characters have to face the past and some have more coping skills for this than others. None of them are perfectly well-adjusted, and that’s the most realistic part. We probably wouldn’t do a better job in their shoes. That makes each character relatable in some small way, depending on the reader’s life experience.

I recommend this book if you love a complex family story with genuine characters.