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Archive for the ‘mother-daughter relationships’ Tag

Maternal Ties   Leave a comment

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My Name is Lucy Barton is a statement and not only the title of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. It’s an affirmation as Lucy reflects on the relationship with her mother, which is like a faulty wire: occasionally there’s no connection.

Lucy is from a rural Illinois town where growing up her family lived so far below the poverty line as to make it seem something to attain. Lucy’s life is revealed as she lies in a hospital bed with a view of the Chrysler Building in New York City talking with her mother whom she hasn’t seen or spoken with in years. Strout is methodical as she merges Lucy’s past with the present.

The rich, stark pacing and imagery serve to expose family dynamics in the narrative. That is, Strout’s writing provides enough detail to shape a situation or character, but not so much that there is little left to the imagination. In fact, this is what makes some aspects harrowing: imagining what life was like for young Lucy. She lived with her older siblings and parents in a garage until age 11.

Her mother’s brief presence provides the vehicle to see Lucy’s past; the extended hospitalization gives Lucy time to consider her adult life as a mother, wife and writer.

Lucy should despise her parents and her past, yet she doesn’t. Her family was shunned and her parents were apparently abusive in their neglect. Lucy is grateful for her mother’s presence. The mother-daughter bond, at least from Lucy’s perspective, overrides past sins.

My Name is Lucy Barton
Four and a half Bookmarks
Random House, 2016
191 pages

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Parenting Gone Awry   Leave a comment

Imperfect Birds

Anne Lamott’s Imperfect Birds is either a wake-up call or a near-miss experience for parents and their kids. Either way, it’s a disheartening look at teenagers, parenting, and community. The first paragraph sets the tone: “… a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses, or jail.” The first thing I’d do is move, no matter how idyllic the little town, where the story’s set, with its appealing proximity to San Francisco.

Lamott writes with purpose, honesty and humor. Yet her characters are not likeable. Rosie is an entitled high school senior, facing real and difficult situations where peer pressure, availability of drugs, and opportunities for sex are abundant. Elizabeth and James, Rosie’s mother and stepfather, know these dangers exist, but are reluctant to parent. Why should they? Rosie’s a good student and involved at church. Plus, as a consummate liar she successfully overrides her parents’ arbitrary concerns.

It doesn’t help that Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic – except it should. She shouldn’t be such an easy mark. James doesn’t fare much better, although he tries. Elizabeth’s fault is her desire to be Rosie’s friend first and parent second. The book does lend itself to a discussion about parenting.

If Lamott’s goal is to show how blind loving parents can be, she’s successful. When Elizabeth and James finally see the light, it’s not through their personal epiphanies, rather from Rosie forgetting to keep the wool over her own eyes.

Imperfect Birds
Three Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2010
317 pages

Amy Tan’s Tome   Leave a comment

The Valley of Amazement

At nearly 600 pages, Amy Tan’s recent novel, The Valley of Amazement, is not just long-awaited, it’s just long. Very long.

It’s the exhaustive story of Chinese courtesans, mothers, daughters, unattainable love, and mistakes repeated from one generation to the next. And, it’s so dang long. Tan clearly did her research to impart so much about the life of a courtesan. The trouble is that other authors have written on this topic much more succinctly. Lisa See comes to mind.

Two thirds of the work is told from Violet’s perspective, which begins when she is seven years old growing up in a Shanghai courtesan house run by her mother, Lucia, an American. Violet is initially unaware that her father, whom she has never met, is Chinese. At 14, Violet is sold to become a courtesan herself when her mother sets sail, unwittingly without her daughter, for San Francisco. Thus begins the lengthy downward spiral Violet endures as things go from worse to worse, interspersed with moments of rare happiness or brief tolerance to her life’s harsh realities. Much of what Violet endures is predictable.

The book’s final third provides Lucia’s view. By comparison, the brevity, although a relief, is puzzling. Yes, Violet is the focus, but this is a narrative about mother-daughter relationships. Even with Tan’s excessive details, Violet is an intriguing character as are several others. After spending so much time with them, they do find their way into our hearts; it just could have been sooner rather than later.

The Valley of Amazement

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013

589 pages

Sweeping Under the Rug   Leave a comment

sweepingglass

I’m very close to my mother, so I’m usually drawn to novels with strong, happy mother/daughter relationships. Carolyn Wall’s Sweeping Up Glass doesn’t fit this description, at least not the happy part. Nonetheless, this is an engaging, albeit flawed, story about family, community and racism in rural Kentucky.

Narrator Olivia Harker Cross has lived in Pope County all her life. She recounts her seemingly-idyllic childhood where her best friends are Pap, her beloved father, and Love Alice, a child-bride of color. Olivia’s mother is in a mental hospital for much of Olivia’s early life. But, tranquil accounts can get boring, which is why Wall provides conflict just when things seem to be just a little too blissful.

Ida, Olivia’s mother, returns home from the mental institute and life for the young girl loses much of its carefree charm. This single event slowly instigates an avalanche of challenges. Mother and daughter have a hellish relationship that continues into Olivia’s adulthood.

The narrative moves from Olivia’s youth to her life as a grown woman, left to care for the mother she despises and for Will’m, the grandson she cherishes. The poverty Wall describes is tangible, as is the harsh winter weather. Less, this sound completely joyless, be assured there are moments of hope and happiness. There are also vivid images of hatred and bigotry. These play against a long-held secret that once revealed shatters everything Olivia thought she knew about herself and those she loves. The problem is that all the pieces don’t quite fit.

The few missteps raise questions that trip up an otherwise compelling tale.

Sweeping Up Glass
Almost Four Bookmarks
Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2009
319 pages

Cutting Edge Suspense   Leave a comment

SharpObjects

Gillian Flynn writes books that are hard to put down filled with characters that are even harder to enjoy – or forget. Like her wildly popular recent work Gone Girl, Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, is full of dysfunctional relationships and twisted back stories; imagine Mommie Dearest meets Mean Girls.

Sharp Objects is immediately engaging: Camille Preaker, a third-rate newspaper reporter at an equally-lackluster Chicago newspaper, is sent to her hometown in rural Missouri to investigate the murder of two preteen girls. Camille’s self-deprecating manner initially creates empathy. It’s enhanced, for a short time, by the strained connection she has with her cold, distant mother, Adora. Slowly, the murders become background material as Camille’s childhood, and how she relates to them, comes to the forefront.

Adora lacks maternal instinct, and Camille’s approach to dealing with the emotional damage inflicted by her mother is as far from healthy as Neptune is from earth. In fact, Adora, unapologetically voices her disdain for Camille. In addition to Adora and Camille, the novel features a range of characters affected by the murders, and no one emerges kindly. The degree to which they are disturbed is varied and this is what helps make the book so compelling.

This who-dunnit is very creepy. The list of possibilities is short, so when the culprit is revealed, it’s not surprising just jarring. What’s most unexpected is the number of clues Flynn provides about Camille’s and the town’s secrets; those are much more difficult to anticipate.

Sharp Objects
Four Bookmarks
Three Rivers Press, 2006
254 pages