Songs in Ordinary Time

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Published by: Penguin
Pages: 752
ISBN13: 978-0140244823



It is the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont.  Hardworking Marie Fermoyle is a strong but vulnerable woman whose divorce in those times marks her as woman of questionable virtue.  Her loneliness and ambition for her children’s success in life make her an easy target for the dangerous con man, Omar Duvall.  Duvall has been on the run all of his life, and now, most recently, from the murder of a young man in his itinerant team of magazine and bible salesmen.

Marie’s children are Alice, seventeen, who becomes involved with a troubled young priest and is also being pursued by Blue Mooney, the outcast town hood; Norm, sixteen—hotheaded and idealistic, who sees himself as the man of the house; and Benjy, twelve—isolated and misunderstood, and so desperate for his mother’s happiness that he hides the deadly truth he knows about Omar Duvall.

Sam Fermoyle is Marie’s alcoholic ex-husband and the children’s embarrassing father.  He lives with his bed-ridden, senile mother, Bridget, his bitter and deeply religious sister, Helen, and his brother-in-law, the endearing Renie LaChance who makes anonymous “love” calls from the tiny centerfold-papered bathroom of his failing appliance store.  And, next door to Marie and her children are the Klubocks—who in contrast to the Fermoyles live an orderly life in their lovely home—all that Marie has ever wanted.

In this modern classic, each voice is a song, with each song revealing the secret joys and pain of small town American life.  Songs In Ordinary Time is a masterful epic of the everyday, illuminating the kaleidoscope of lives that tell the compelling story of this unforgettable family - and the brilliantly rendered and indomitable Marie Fermoyle.

Songs In Ordinary Time is an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

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“A gritty, beautifully crafted novel rich in wisdom and suspense... Secures Morris’s status as one of our finest American writers.”
—The Miami Herald

“An extraordinary novel... A deeply satisfying story... There is grace and poetry in Morris’s prose.”
—USA Today

Songs in Ordinary Time is real life crusing small-town USA with the top down and the volume up. In her graphic, stilleto chapters, Mary McGarry Morris is a cross between Elizabeth Gaskell and David Lynch.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Morris’s powers of observation create a depth that makes the characters’ dilemmas seem as real as the reader’s own. The book is alternately touching and sinister, but it resonates with authenticity.”
—The San Diego Tribune

Songs in Ordinary Time is deep and thick as a long, hot summer, a fully realized world... wrought with fearless detail...the narrative of a town reminiscent of the collective ache ofThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”
—The Boston Globe

“Morris seems merely to have been sharpening her skills when she wrote Vanished...and A Dangerous Woman. Now she has brought all her gifts to bear on Songs in Ordinary Time....The flowing sentences and scenes make every page worth reading.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer

Reading Guide


In Mary McGarry Morris’ intricately constructed novel, many lives intersect and connect, much like the strains of a symphonic ode. But it is the Fermoyle family who lends the story its resonance and presents the reader with a multitude of passions, ironies, tragedies, poor choices, and triumphs from which one can trace every element of the human condition. Marie Fermoyle’s life is a daily struggle not only to feed and clothe her children, but to imbue them with the strength and determination she knows they will need to forge their way in the hardscrabble world they inhabit. And though she seems thwarted at every turn—by her alcoholic ex-husband’s embarrassing public displays, her shabby eyesore of a house, the explosive temper of her oldest son, or the pathetic passivity of her youngest—Marie never gives up.

Omar Duvall enters the lives of Atkinson’s citizens with the impact of a car crashing through a plate glass window. Although he is deceitful, unctuous, and sly, he manages to ingratiate himself into the hearts and homes of the town’s lost souls, as well as its more upstanding citizens. From Benjy’s fervent belief that Omar, messiah-like, will rescue his mother from her profound unhappiness, to Bernadette Mansaw’s pragmatic and untrusting embrace, to Marie’s blind yearnings for the attentions of a man who seems truly devoted to her, the citizens of Atkinson find what they are looking for in Duvall’s promises of wealth and good fortune. All it takes is a little faith, and a lot of their hard-earned cash.

We find Atkinson on the brink of a new era. It’s 1960—a relatively calm year with only hints of the tumult and disorder—assassination, war, and civil unrest—that are near at hand. The complacent acceptance of authority that dominated the previous decade is coming to an end. The signs of economic imbalance, sexual freedom, and rebellion against the status quo are everywhere: in Father Gannon’s un-priest like demeanor, in Renie LaChance’s failing appliance store, in the provocative sway of Jessie Klubock’s hips, in Carol Stoner’s stoic acceptance of her husband’s infidelity. These are ordinary people, and certainly Atkinson is a typical American town. But the struggles we witness during this long and eventful summer are as fundamental and epic as those found in the works of Dickens and Steinbeck. And as the citizens of Atkinson contend with their deepest fears and their strongest desires, they offer us an extraordinary portrait of the human condition at its most frail and its most triumphant. Taken individually their songs are bittersweet strains of disappointment and longing; together they form a lyrical masterwork of hope, perseverance and spirit.


How did you come to create the town of Atkinson, Vermont, and all its characters?

Many of the characters have been in my head for years and years. As I went along in the novel they grew in both personality and detail. Others came on board later in the novel’s life.

How did you keep track of all of the characters’ individual stories?

I kept lists and charts taped to the wall over my desk, and I even used index cards which were numbered and which contained events or scenes so I would know where each person was at any given time. Then, if a scene was to be juxtaposed with another I could tell where the people were and what was happening in their lives. This of course came later in the writing of the novel.

The seeds of these stories were with me from the beginning, as were certain characters, such as the Fermoyle family and Omar Duvall, and they made up the emotional core of the novel. The more mechanical parts, where I had to keep track of all the characters, were actually more difficult to write.

Which character do you consider to be the novel's moral compass?

So many of the characters are struggling with morality; I'm not sure there is any one character I’d consider the moral compass. Norm Fermoyle, for instance, is very socially responsible and he has a great frustration trying to save his mother and his siblings. He wants to do the right thing but that’s very difficult for him. Of course, you would expect Father Gannon would be someone you could look to for moral opinion but he’s having a terrible time himself. Sonny Stoner is struggling as well, and is probably more a failure in his own eyes than in the judgement of his fellow townspeople. The band leader, Jarden Greene, feels that it’s his responsibility to set the moral tone for the community, to save it from the kind of decline represented by Joey Seldon’s dilapidated popcorn stand on the edge of the lovely town park.

What is Benjy looking for?

I saw many of the characters as looking for a kind of a salvation and for Benjy it would have been Omar to whom he looks. Benjy tends to refashion reality—there’s his petty thievery, all the television he watches—he wants to give his mother a hero, someone who will change their world for them.

You’ve written two previous novels. What did you learn from writing those novels that helped you with this one?

Obviously, brevity was not one of them. If anything, probably the ways and importance of giving characters depth no matter how minor they might be. Even if it’s just a few details, that kind of attention can lend many dimensions to the main stories you want to tell.

What does the novel’s title mean?

There are many ways to interpret the title. The Songs are various stories of ordinary people in Atkinson: I wanted them to have a lyrical feeling so that each character’s voice could tell their story, and as the various segments of these stories ended there would be this subtle ebb, and then another character’s tale could take up the melody, and I envisioned the effect of this being a kind of chorusing, a consonance of pain and joy.

In Christian Liturgy, Ordinary Time is that period of time in which there are no major holy days. This book takes place in summer, the only complete season in Ordinary Time. Also, that year—1960—was still a very calm and peaceful time, which in a few short years, would change completely. It was a time of naïveté that we’ll never see again, and yet it was also a time when some of the more basic rules of morality were starting to be questioned. These are really the stories of ordinary lives, of people caught in the everyday struggles of everyday life.


  1. Omar Duvall is known to the reader as a dishonest and potentially dangerous man. Why do you think the people of Atkinson are drawn to such a reprehensible figure? What does he offer people like Marie, Benjy, Harvey Klubock, and Bernadette Mansaw? Why do these characters refuse to accept the truth about him, even when it’s clearly evident that he has lied to them?
  2. How do you feel about the character of Marie Fermoyle? Given the circumstances she’s had to face—the breakup of her marriage to the heir of a prominent family, the economic hardships she’s endured, the scrutinizing eyes of neighbors and other members of the community—can you sympathize with her actions towards her children, Omar Duvall, and her ex-husband?
  3. Although most of the novel’s characters are flawed, few of them are truly malevolent. Discuss, for instance, Renie LaChance’s telephone calls to women, Sonny Stoner’s affair with Eunice, Father Gannon’s affair with Alice, Robert Haddad’s thievery, and Sam’s alcoholism. What do these characters, and their failings, have in common? What compels them in their actions?
  4. What do Joey Seldon and his popcorn stand represent to the novel and/or to the town of Atkinson? Why do you think people feel so strongly about Joey, one way or the other?
  5. How does Morris use humor to offset the darker events of the novel? Do her humorous passages make you more sympathetic toward characters such as Omar Duvall, Jarden Greene, or Astrid Haddad?
  6. Why do you think Norm, who had been Omar Duvall’s greatest detractor, is taken in by the soap-selling scheme? How does Omar manage to manipulate Norm’s feelings about him, and why, eventually, does he fail?
  7. What does Father Gannon mean when he tells Alice, “I realize that my faith has become a wholeness. It's a unity of mind and soul. And flesh...I finally feel like a real priest!” Do you think he really loves Alice? What does she give him and what, in turn, does he offer her?
  8. Omar insists that he truly loves Marie, despite all the ways in which he has deceived her. Do you believe him? Do you believe his involvement with the Fermoyle family has changed him? What clues does Morris offer, especially in the final scene involving Omar, Norm, and Benjy, that affect your feelings either way?
  9. How does the concept of salvation figure in the novel? Which characters can’t be saved from their own desperate acts, and which are trying desperately to save themselves?
  10. What do you think the future holds for Marie Fermoyle and her family? How has the presence of Omar Duvall changed each of them, as well as their relationships with each other?