I found it strange that the author of Nobody’s Child: A Tragedy, a Trial, and a History of the Insanity Defense chooses to focus solely on the trial for the alleged murder of a child, when the issues the story raises are immensely larger than the insanity defense: why are poor women afforded so little help to raise children? Why have we decided that tired grandmothers should raise their grandchildren, let alone disturbed grandchildren? Why are mental health patients living on the street?
That said, this true story is told with kindness and respect for the family at the heart of it.
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me is, amazingly, the true story of a mother who enlisted her (young!) teenaged daughter into her long and ill-advised tryst with her husband’s best friend, himself married, of course. The remarkable part of the memoir is that it took years for its writer to realize that so many boundaries had indeed been crossed. I did not like the book, not because of the sad story it contained, but because of the way it was told, like a bad romance novel (or at least my idea of what a bad romance novel would be): with lots of irrelevant details of the clothes that were worn and the tony abodes where the story unfolded and a puzzling lack of judgment on most of the actors.
The author of Joy Enough was unlucky enough to see her mother sicken and die and her husband walk out on her at the same time. Such bad luck! And there are a few heart-melting moments in the memoir, as when the members of her mother’s book club show up, spontaneously, to clean the house after her death. But the story, however tragic, seems rather ordinary otherwise.
That Kind of Mother starts beautifully, with a description of the fog of early motherhood that’s so strikingly accurate I had to double-check that the author is, indeed, a man. Then, the mother acquires a nanny, and again the author captures the funny dance of working mother versus nanny roles. But when the nanny dies giving birth, and the mother, unexpectedly, decides to adopt the infant, and the story weakens and eventually peters out. Why? The white mother seems utterly deaf to the challenges her black adopted son is facing, and resists any help his step-sister, a grown woman and mother herself, offers her. I suppose it could be a great story of misunderstanding but it just came across to me as impossible to swallow.
Stray City stars a woman who escaped the strictures of her conservative Catholic family to live openly as a lesbian in Portland. At first, she explores the tight-knit lesbian community there, but she soon becomes pregnant after an untimely hookup and her life changes to a staid (and to me tedious) domesticity, in which she seems unable to discern that her daughter will one day be very curious about her dad. While I loved the adventurous first part of the novel, the rest seemed to be cribbed straight out of a lackluster women’s magazine.
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready is the story of the author’s unplanned pregnancy (note to your women out there: contraception exists for those who don’t want to get pregnant!) and start with a rather tiresome woe-is-me description of the early days, followed by an equally tiresome description of the intense planning effort that follows — but the rest of the book I found excellent, as she describes what it feels to treated like a tiresome patient in the hospital, then a milk cow afterwards. I’m a little leery of recommending the book to moms-to-be, since it can be a little over-sensationalized, but it’s certainly much more vivid and accurate that the pabulum of pamphlets commonly found in doctors’ offices (and much better written!)
In A Time of Love and Tartan, our friend Bertie‘s mother is moving out and his father quits his job, setting us up for a very different kind of story in the next installment, I think. (The overbearing mother’s theme was getting, well, a bit overbearing!) In the meantime, we are treated to the usual lovely observations of Bertie’s teacher trying to mediate peace with his difficult classmates, a gallery director who gets into trouble with his old English teacher, and a young woman who is tempted by a terribly inappropriate old flame. Or, and some Pygmies come for lunch, too.
Bertie’s mom is back, sadly for him — but I predict he will grow into an even more thoughtful and strong young man as a result of her overbearing upbringing. So as he trudges from psychotherapy to Italian lessons to saxophone lessons, he is learning. We also have lots of adventures with the triplets and their au-pairs, and a new child appears on the scene so children all around.
Back to the mom: aren’t evil female characters enjoyable , and mothers to boot?
Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers (in the 44 Scotland Street Series) brings us Bertie without his mother, who has been waylaid, improbably, during a stay in Dubai (hence the two-star rating — surely there would be a better way to make her disappear for a few months!) Freed from his obsessed mother, he can participate in all kinds of delightful activities, from eating ice cream to ditching his psychotherapy sessions, and displays his considerable charm and caring to his heretofore-remote grandmother. Assorted other characters also make an appearance. Lovely if you can compartmentalize that silly disappearance device.
Little Fires Everywhere skillfully unrolls the story of a family in a conservative suburb that simultaneously befriends a single mother with a mysterious past and another family who adopted an also mysteriously abandoned baby — so the story is about motherhood, chosen or not, biological or not.
And it’s certainly filled with surprises and twists, both in the life stories of the characters and their personalities. But what a melodrama, and what a cliche-laden story, with unpleasant consequences for the logic of the events. Would a young college student recognize “baby hunger” in an older woman? I think not. Would the police fail to find an abandoned baby in one of the city’s fire stations a couple of weeks after the fact? Of course not.
There are some well-observed mannerisms and interactions in the book, but they could not overcome the overdone affect and underdone logic.