Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“[A] perceptive debut novel…. the psychological acuity applied to the family drama is undeniable.”
My novel, Pete and Alice in Maine is the story of a New York City couple and their two daughters who flee to their second home in Maine during the spring of 2020, when, as we all remember, Covid descended. They are reeling from a painful betrayal in their marriage and trying to hang together during this extraordinary time in world history.
I wrote the book because I noticed that a lot of people were escaping to my home state of Maine in the early months of Covid. I’d go out running and see Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey license plates.
At first it annoyed and worried me. Maine is a poor and aging state, we don’t have many hospital beds, we didn’t have enough ventilators, we were rationing toilet paper. I was born and raised here. So was my husband. Like many Mainers, we do a lot of odd jobs to keep body and soul together. So we were really paying attention to what was happening with people from away showing up to shelter in their second homes.
But then, the more I thought about it, I wanted to know what those people with the out of state license plates, whom I perceived to have more privilege than many of us in Maine have, were fleeing. Beyond just Covid. What about their lives prompted them to want to find refuge here, in Maine?
My character of Alice came to me in April of 2020 and started talking. She insisted I write her down. I thought I was writing a short story. By June, I was writing a novel. I wrote for one year exactly until the book was done.
My sons and husband are super into music. And they are always playing music, on the radio, on CDs, Spotify. My sons both play piano, drums and guitar and are both tap dancers, which is a percussive instrument. So, as I wrote, I listened to tons of music about love, hurt, kids—all the stuff the best musicians write about and make unique in their own ways. Music inspired so much of the book. The second chapter, “Jingle and Go,” for instance, was entirely formed in my head while listening to Ryan Bingham’s song by the same name. This happens to me a lot—a song will just hand me an entire story. The chapter called “Thanksgiving” is about the daughter, Sophie, and was entirely drawn in my mind by listening to the Beatles’ song, “I’ve Got a Feeling.”
I have aimed to write an honest book about marriage, family life, being a Gen-X woman, the experiences of young girls in a family with problems and, more deeply, a book about America during a specific time in our history: When Trump was our president; George Floyd was murdered and Covid had grounded all our lives. I just hope readers will say to themselves, “Oh, finally someone understands me.” And that they feel I am their friend. We all need friends in books. Especially in summer!
1. Beautiful Day, U2
When the book opens, Pete and Alice and their two girls are driving out of New York to go shelter in place in their second home in Brooklin, Maine. There has been a recent betrayal in their marriage. But they are flung back together by Covid. And it’s a beautiful, sunny day as they drive North. I was thinking about that line of John Updike’s from his story, “Separating,” where he writes, “ All that June the weather had mocked the Maples’ internal misery with solid sunlight.” This U2 song has this refrain: “Touch me/Take me to that other place/Reach me/I know I’m not a hopeless case…” Which, it occurred to me, could have been in either Alice’s or Pete’s heads.
2. Jingle and Go, Ryan Bingham
In the second chapter of the book, Pete and Alice finally leave their house in Maine after a forced quarantine for 14 days, and they go food shopping and then hiking with their girls on Blue Hill Mountain. They are dizzy with the feeling of escape and shopping for food and eating it and the day starts to unravel a bit with the headiness of it all. While they are driving, Pete is playing this song by Ryan Bingham and everyone is singing the song. It has this jaunty sound, and the lines are fun: “ My Cadillac is cherry, my books are crocodile/shake some money down in my cup, my pinky ring will slide/ oh you know, that’s how I jingle and go…”
3. Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads
This song is like the theme of the entire book: You can get lost in your life. Especially Gen X women who were told they could have it all, do it all, be it all. And then you realize you can’t. And there’s regret and anger and you can feel lost. “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
4. I Know What It’s Like, Amanda Shires
This is such a beautiful song. To me it’s about so many things—what it’s like to be sad and lost and in pain in a relationship. But it’s also, to me, what so many of us felt during that Covid lockdown period, the helplessness, the craziness of Trump and then George Floyd’s murder and just feeling like, wow, nothing is ok. “I know what it’s like
To want to give up on the fight/To want so much to run away/To have nothing left to say.”
5. I Can’t Breathe, H.E.R
I couldn’t write about that terrible year without writing about what happened to George Floyd, his murder that was captured on video. And that “Mama,” he uttered at the end. It shook our nation. And it should have. I wish I could say more had changed since then. This song is so beautiful, so graceful, so quietly powerful, I had to include it; it’s the best kind of protest song: “Prayin’ for change ’cause the pain makes you tender/All of the names you refuse to remember/Was somebody’s brother, friend/Or a son to a mother that’s crying, singing/I can’t breathe/You’re taking my life from me/I can’t breathe/Will anyone fight for me? (Yeah)”
6. The Eye, Brandi Carlisle
This a a beautiful song. No one has a voice like Brandi. I love the idea that love is like a hurricane and the only way to dance in it, is to stand in the eye of the storm. Like, the only way to truly see pain and love, too, is to stop walking away—to stand inside the problem. “I wrapped your love around me like a chain/But I never was afraid that it would die/You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you’re standing in the eye.”
7. Hungry Like the Wolf, Duran Duran
I put this song in the book because it’s on the radio every single time Alice and her daughters go anywhere in the car. And they all sing it out loud in the car. It’s one of those fun, summer songs, and you can imagine the windows down, bare feet on the dash, sunblock smeared across foreheads. And this song also brings me back to when I was growing up on the Blue Hill Peninsula in Maine and listening to Duran Duran in the 80s and reading Teen Beat and imagining I was married to John Taylor.
8. New York, New York, Ryan Adams
This song was just obvious: Pete is driving back to the city to do some work and it’s that crazy fall when we were all watching the election unfold and the stress was so high and no vaccine yet and everyone just out of their minds as winter came, and then he’s driving down the west side highway listening to Ryan Adams sing this song. Just the perfect soundtrack to that moment. He still loves the way New York sets him free.
9. You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Rolling Stones
There is no other song like this. It’s, to my mind, the anthem of marriage, of love, of being a family, a child. Sometimes you can’t get what you want. But getting what you need might be possible. The hardest thing is figuring out what you need. This is what both Pete and Alice are always trying to understand in themselves, and together, in the book.
10. Break My Heart Sweetly, John Moreland
This is just a beautiful love song that is sung so feelingly and I had this entire album, In the Throes, in my mind as I was writing the book. I love how raw and open Moreland is in his lyrics and his voice. Pete and Alice have a love affair and they are also hurting each other. So this song felt so apt to me. “There’s a scar on my soul/ So let me down easy/ Break my heart sweetly/Like you always do/I guess I can’t let go/’Til you wreck me completely/Break my heart sweetly/Drape me in blue.”
11. Come Back, Pearl Jam
My older son recently started playing Pearl Jam for me and I can’t believe I wasn’t listening to them every day before that. I adore this song. And I was thinking about it when Pete and Alice separate in that bleak winter of 2020. And how enmeshed you are in marriage, even if you are pulled apart. I imagined them both singing this song but unable to hear the other one.
12. Let it Be, The Beatles
The book ends on a cliffhanger. You don’t know what is about to happen with Pete and Alice. People have written to me entire stories they think happen next. And then they say, “Right? This is what you were thinking, right?” Actually, I think I was thinking less of what happens next when I wrote that ending, and more about the idea that even in a big question mark, when we aren’t sure what to do next, sometimes we have to just let it be.
Caitlin Shetterly is the author of Modified and Made for You and Me, and the editor of the bestselling Fault Lines: Stories of Divorce. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Orion, Elle, Self, and on Oprah.com, as well as on This American Life and various other public radio shows. She is the editor-in-chief of Frenchly, a French arts and culture online news magazine. A Maine native, she graduated with honors from Brown University and now lives with her two sons and husband in her home state. Pete and Alice in Maine is her first novel.