You don't just read about the modest people in this slim, elegantly written novel, Someone. You see them. Alice McDermott describes her characters so vividly from the color of the piping on their hats to the length of the instep in their shoes that the details come together in your mind's eye as if from your own memory. Marie, the shy 7-year-old narrator, whiles away most of the 1920s sitting on her front stoop, watching her neighbors through ''black slits for eyes'' behind thick glasses and black bangs, making her look like ''a little girl cartoon.''
The fact that the book's greatest observer needs corrective lenses might seem like a cruel joke. But it's actually key to understanding her Irish-American family and their neighbors, who spend more time talking about each other than to each other. Marie savors their gossip as she grows up, especially the tale of Bill Corrigan, who was blinded in the war, and the terrible mystery of newlywed Dora Ryan, who discovered on her wedding night that her husband wasn't the man he appeared to be. All of the stories ask the same question: Just how well do these people see their neighbors, if they're really seeing them at all?
It's only death that brings out everyone's true nature. Early on, Marie loses a young friend. Later, her cozy world comes apart when her beloved father gets sick, forcing her brother Gabe, who's just been ordained as a priest, to perform the last rites. Gabe is the heart of this book, a failed holy man who can't quite become the man he wants to be, even though you suspect he's actually a better one than he knows. There are no real dramatic moments here, which can leave you wondering where everything is leading. But to be fair, these characters probably wonder the same thing about their ordinary, day-to-day existence. Not living up to the vision you had for your life that's the real tragedy of this book, and it's a small but heartbreaking one. B+