Stella Maris is a companion piece to The Passenger, both by Cormac McCarthy. The latter took great pains to position Alicia Western as an enigmatic, brilliant, and potentially insane character who happened to be the sister of Robert Western, The Passenger’s protagonist. In The Passenger, the reader experienced short vignettes of Alicia, often while being visited by “The Kid,” a supposed figment of her imagination. As The Passenger occurred in the early 1980s, Alicia was said to already be dead.
Stella Maris takes place in 1972, and Alicia is still very much alive. She has checked herself into Stella Maris, a mental health facility. The book itself is written in script format while using a back and forth conversation between Alicia and her doctor. As you probably know, McCarthy does not use quotation marks or apostrophes, and so this particular style could become confusing at times. However, overall, it proved fairly clear in regard to who was speaking.
First of all, I found the premise of the book very interesting. Taking a secondary character from a novel, albeit one who drove the plot in many ways, and making her the main character in a script could not be described as a conventional decision. Furthermore, seeing her lucid and speaking to another human being instead of the mysterious “Kid” provided insight to her actual character. In The Passenger, we could never quite be sure we were getting the real Alicia. In Stella Maris, we can’t quite be sure anything in The Passenger was entirely accurate, either.
Which brings me to the second thing I enjoyed most about Stella Maris. This book acts almost as a counterbalance to The Passenger. Some things are confirmed, some things are elaborated upon, yet some things are flatly contradicted. I had theories that The Passenger may not be what it seemed, and Stella Maris did much to reinforce such beliefs. Should Stella Maris take precedence over The Passenger in acting as our true guide to the overall story? It could all be in the title, right?
Finally, Alicia is a mathematical genius, and McCarthy sold me on that trait. Writers tend to utilize characters who are either English majors or writers themselves, because, of course, write what you know. When a writer tries to deliver a “genius” character with other aptitudes, it can come off as shallow at best and unbelievable at worst. McCarthy made me believe Alicia not only understood mathematics in a way almost no one else could, but that she truly lived it as a routine part of her life. Of course, I don’t know much about math, so he could have made it all up, which might actually have been even more impressive, but McCarthy seemed well-versed on what he discussed via Alicia.
In the end, I don’t know exactly what to think about both The Passenger or Stella Maris, other than I applaud the books for doing just that–making me think. While the books weren’t hard to read, they were, by design, hard to understand, which meant the reader had to read actively throughout. It’s been days since I finished The Passenger and I’m still thinking about it. I finished Stella Maris this morning and I’m sure it will also occupy space in my head for weeks to come.