when fiction makes you think about your life
Back on May 13th, I celebrated my one year blogoversary. I had it in my head to surprise the person who posted a comment closest to my original launch time with a gift card for $20 to his or her favorite bookstore. I also decided that this “gift” would come with strings attached, as I planned to ask the recipient of the reward to write a little somethin’-somethin’ about the book he or she purchased. (Seriously, how manipulative is that?) As you can imagine, depending on your perspective, this “gift” could have been considered a heinous curse. Thankfully, the fabulous Julie C. Gardner responded to my May 13, 2011 blog at 5:21 PM, and became the winner of my extra-secret super-stealth-mode-blogoversary-contest. (*Cue the paper streamers and the cheesy horn.*)
But Julie was so gracious! She was not only excited to receive my offer, she took control of it. She told me not to fuss with purchasing a book or even a gift card; she would buy the books herself. She simply asked me for a few recommendations of titles – and I shot her a check in the mail. FYI: Julie Gardner is the easiest person in the world to shop for. Ever. She is also an amazing writer. When you visit her blog, By Any Other Name, you will see what I mean. Julie gets people to confess things. She knows stuff about me that some of my friends don’t know. How does she do that?
So, thank you, Julie, for giving me the best blogoversary gift: a piece of writing, inspired by a few books that I really loved, a reminder of the love we mothers have for our sons, and a mutual appreciation for truth-telling in writing. And now, here’s Julie. Call her “Awesome.”
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So I’ve been reading. A lot. And not simply because I’m an English teacher-slash-writer; or because Renée bought me a few books* to celebrate her blogoversary. (Hooray!) No, to me reading is legal procrastination. It implies I’m serious about my work; researchy, even. (I know “researchy” isn’t a word, but neither is “complainy,” and I use that one frequently. I’m an English teacher. I take liberties. With frequentiousness. Or whatever.)
Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. Reading. A lot. More specifically, three books with a common theme:
Mother + Son = Complicated Relationship.
(That’s the only math in this post. You’re welcome.)
And now, cue the gist, with no Spoiler Alerts necessary:
First, in Emma Donoghue’s Room, five-year-old Jack and Ma are prisoners in the storage shed of their captor, a kidnapper who “fathered” the little boy. Young Jack has spent the entirety of his life inside Room believing nothing real exists Outside; until his fifth birthday when Ma decides he must attempt an escape, thereby risking a separation that’s unimaginably terrifying.
Next, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin explores the aftermath of a Columbine-esque massacre. The story unfolds entirely in letters written by Eva (the mother of the teenaged killer) to her estranged husband, Franklin. Having nothing left to lose, Eva admits to feeling ambivalent about motherhood, horrified by Kevin’s darkness, and ultimately resigned to surviving the downfall of the family she feels unsuited to embrace.
Finally, Lisa Grunwald’s The Irresistible Henry House follows the life of an orphaned baby named Henry who is “mothered” by a series of college coeds in the (historically accurate) Practice House of a well-intentioned university’s home economics department. Abandoned by his biological mother, Henry is adopted by Martha, the childless head of the program who treats Henry as her sole reason for being. This string of disproportionate attachments hinders Henry’s ability to connect and trust as he becomes a man.
Because I spent three weeks engrossed by these mothers and sons; three weeks witnessing their disasters; three weeks during which I’d pause and think, “Crap, I’m glad this isn’t my life!”
(Except in fancier words because I am, after all, an English teacher and therefore fancy.)
Like this: Woe to these women confronting fear and loneliness and death! I can’t imagine such depths of despair!
And also this: Hope leaks from them until they lose the will to fight the loss. What have they to do with me?
Indeed, it’s easy to compartmentalize these mothers as Fiction-Only. Such tragedy wouldn’t happen in real life. Except it did. And it does.
The unlikelihood is irrelevant; because the best novels carry us to the unexpected, the unfathomable , the extreme; while holding up a mirror and daring us to look.
Despite my comfortable “separateness” from Martha and Ma and Eva, I couldn’t help noticing similarities between these wrecked women and me. (And not merely of the “I have a son, too” variety; although I do have a son who will be fourteen next week.)
…These mothers have good intentions. Hey. I have good intentions!
…They’re redefined by the very existence of their sons. Most definitely.
…They commit themselves to their tasks; make sacrifices they question but endure; struggle with their own incidents of selfishness. All right. This is true for me, as well.
…They are, at times, disappointed by their sons. Yes. Sadly, yes.
…They have needs and desires; battle insecurity and pride; display strengths and weaknesses exacerbated by their sons. And, oh yeah, I do too.
…They learn that death is not, in fact, the worst dénouement imaginable. Because it isn’t. If you think hard, it’s not.
These three books chafed me with their honesty. Martha, Ma and Eva say what most mothers never dare to in words that made me nod and blush and fold the pages for revisiting.
Mothers do not often admit to having resentment or favorites or paralyzing regret. We foolishly expect to control our human frailties once we become parents. But then we don’t. Abandon our frailties, I mean.
In fact, our flaws announce themselves in stark relief against the backdrop of perfection we imagine.
These authors, however, tear down the backdrop and expose what parenthood – in its most distilled moments – can teach us:
That hope and love can be more difficult than loss.
But oh. We cannot ever give it up.
The hope, I mean.
And then, of course, the love.
What did you think you knew about parenting but have found yourself questioning? How has the truth of parenting been different from what you expected?
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*NOTE: There is no way that Julie could have purchased all three of these books from my paltry $20. So thank you to Julie for subsidizing some of my blogoversary present. Seriously.