The author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood does a great job of capturing the contrast between the drudgery of raising children (childcare seems to rank lower than even housecleaning as a non-enjoyable activity) and the great joy of having children and seeing them grow into independent adults. But I found the book to be rather weak otherwise. For one thing, the author seems to have chosen parents for the many vignettes throughout the book who are quite extreme. There is a mother of three (including a toddler) who somehow thinks she is going to raise them full-time while running a business from her home. Who could possibly achieve this feat? There is another who, although exhausted, will not, absolutely not, allow her children to cry during the night without getting up, against the opinion of her husband. And that brings up my other beef: why are the fathers portrayed in the book so calm and efficient (and involved!) and the mothers such airheads? Surely there are a few mothers out there who are smart enough to hire a babysitter, who expect their children to sleep through the night, and yet are having no fun trying to survive it all.
And where are the practical recommendations at a societal level? Where are the public nursery schools? The arrangements for emergency childcare for sick kids? The schools that don’t shut down at 3pm? It may be true that parents should be less protective of their children but we can’t really abandon them entirely!
Let’s stay in the Southern hemisphere and move West, to Western Australia, for The Light Between Oceans, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who one day find a baby in a rowboat drifting by their isolated island, and decide to keep it. The setting, to start, is magnificent, between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. The hero, the lighthouse keeper, a WWI veteran, has seen many horrors and retains a stoic but perfectly gentle manner. The many scenes of parenthood are captured with exquisite tenderness and authentic details. So far so good.
But the story line is most improbable, relying on so many amazing coincidences (starting with how a baby can be alive in a boat with her dead father). And the overly sentimental descriptions of motherly love and melodramatic female emotions turned me off. I imagine that less cynical souls would enjoy the book more than I did.
The Mothers reads like a memoir of a woman who, with her husband, wants to adopt a child through an open adoption. The story details the bureaucracy, the stilted process to qualify as an adoptive parent, and the schemes of birth mothers and others who pray on the parents. The book would stand quite well as a memoir, I thought, but it did not work as a novel. It’s boring: we know that it’s hard for a childless couple to witness others’ pregnancies and children. We can imagine that being scammed by a birth mother must be very painful. But we’d like, I’d like, a little more from a novel: a different twist, perhaps, a complex moral dilemma (beyond whether to check all the races’ boxes on the application), or a good climax of some sort. None of that here, beyond the very funny scenes of the adoption workshops where the would-be parents eye each other to decide which of them will be chosen first.
Having successfully sent two children away to college, waiting for the third one to get there, and hoping none will come back, I was curious to see what The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition had to say about the children who do come back. What I found was mixed. On the one hand the author is able to discuss anecdotes from many different countries, including Japan, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and several Nordic countries in addition to the United States, and is able to describe experiences both from the parents’ and the children’s perspectives
On the other, the discussion does not rise much above anecdotes. So yes, there are children who live at home past the age of 30, and there are parents who tolerate it, and parents who seem to prefer it that way, and yes, it is difficult for some young adults to make a comfortable living, but the economic argument seems rather hollow. After all, there are many adult children who strike out on their own, even if they must eat ramen and live in substandard spaces while they do so, so perhaps the issue is really about expectations: the expectations of the children that they will magically move into a lifestyle as comfortable as their parents’ upon college graduation, and of the parents who (methinks) don’t have the guts to kick them out.
Forget Bringing Up Bebe (which I refuse to read, on principle). It’s really Bringing Up Les Grands Bebes: you’re ready, now leave.
Not another book about getting into college! Do try Crazy U. It’s the lighthearted true story of a dad and his reluctant son moving through the crazed world of college applications, including colleges who actively manipulate their rankings (all of them), colleges that fill a large minority of their openings with politely named “legacy” students (some of them), the high-priced admission counselors who convince prosperous parents that they must write them large checks to get their offsprings into a college they can boast about at cocktail parties, and shady online essay-writing mills for the less prosperous. There are many funny parts, including the father trying his hand at the SAT (interesting that we expect our children to do well on something we can’t do) and his wry commentary (such as his characterization of his son’s essay “a verbal version of his bedroom”, lol). A good read even if you are not suffering through that process.
The Adults starts well enough, with a drunken birthday party during which the honoree, the heroine’s father, kisses the neighbor and starts a series of family disasters: divorce, suicide of the neighbor’s husband, unwanted pregnancy. So the heroine’s smart but misguided self sleeps with her English teacher but no one notices and drifts to Prague and back without managing much success, professional or personal.
And I could not care much about it. The 14-year old’s perspective is deftly captured but the book peters out quickly.
Sunset Park starts with the intriguing story of a dropout who has a job clearing out foreclosed homes in Florida and romances an underage high-school senior. But when he moves back to a New York squat the book adds the perspectives of his housemates and eventually his father, and they are not exactly fascinating. The author also finds multiple opportunities to show off his knowledge of baseball trivia (yawn, for me), enjoys multi-page lists way too much (double yawn), and lets small details go awry ($3000 withdrawn from an ATM?) Too bad, the beginning was enticing…
Lost in the Forest is the story of a familywhose father dies accidentally, which brings his stepdaughters closer to their dad, and one of them into a very ill-advised affair with a supposed friend of the family. It’s all very studied: the descriptions of the Napa Valley vineyards read like the author spent one too many weekends at one of the bed-and-breakfast places up there and the characters regularly exclaim in sentences that seem to come straight from couple therapy (now how would I know what couple therapy is like? but it does sound like it!)
Feelings are emoted all over the place and parents are clueless about their teenagers’ misdeeds but they love them very much and eventually everything will be well. Easy to read, not much substance.
In the Kitchen tells the story of a man whose life unravels — up until the hopeful ending. It starts with a brilliant, grueling really, description of what really happens in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant, told in a way that makes the reader wonder whether to patronize such establishments. The hero, who is the executive chef, has hopes to open his own restaurant, a long-time girlfriend, and apart from his crazy schedule and his ailing dad seems to be about to step into great success when he gets involved with one of the kitchen employees, with predictably disastrous consequences.
I found the novel to be quite uneven: thrilling at first, then almost boring as we follow the hero’s descent from a stupid decision into oodles more, culminating with a hard-to-believe experience as a would-be illegal worker. Still, the author captures movements and personalities with such detail that every few pages there is an unexpected comment that made me want to know more.
Under Pressure talks about the same helicopter parents that were the focus of A Nation of Wimps, but the focus is slightly different: more on younger (school age) children, and more on the ridiculousness of defining ourselves through our children’s achievements. The author sagely reminds us that children are quite capable of making decisions about their own lives and that cramming each afternoon with activities will simply exhaust child and parents (and siblings!) I agree heartily. Did we need an entire book to say that?