It feels odd to me that Gwendolyn Gross' third novel, The Other Mother, was so aggressively marketed to mommy bloggers, along with its cover blurb from Leslie Morgan Steiner, the veritable poster writer for Mommy Wars. (Note: I could never love Steiner, as she seems so much like me what with her Wharton degree and her fancy experience, but still she responded to several thoughtful questions I asked for Blogging Baby with answers in ALL CAPS.) It feels odd largely because the book tries so hard not to be mommy lit. It tries to transcend its audience and subject matter with lyrical phrasing and brilliant detail. Some sentences feel as if they were created like poetry, word by word chosen carefully and artfully arranged. The main characters in the book are both flawed by more than their dysfunctional relationships with their own mothers, their struggles with body image, their ambivalence toward motherhood (read: every Jennifer Weiner novel, ever). The ending, while somewhat reconciliatory, is not sweetly perfect. Yet it can not, will not transcend Mommy Lit because the author and publisher are frankly concerned only that mommies read it in their mommy book groups. It can not transcend because it has all the characteristics of Mommy Lit -- the immaturity, the self-conscious sex scenes, the hot-button mommy issue. It can not transcend because, in the end, we have a hard time really liking these mothers; we wonder if it would be possible to never move in next door to either one.
I generally enjoy modern novels about mothers despite the typically uncomplicated literary style, because they are meant to entertain, they discuss issues of major relevance to my life. They all seem to share so many things, however, that pain me and have no place in my own struggle: the presence of a dysfunctional relationship between the central character and her mother, father, or both; her ever-present and rather explicit sexual desires; her flirtation with another man (or, rarely, woman); her geographical presence in either New York, Philadelphia, or a suburb of one of those cities. I long for a novel set in Portland, or British Columbia, with a mama at its center who has an uncomplicated, relaxed love for her parents and a sexual life that stays mostly in the background. Unfortunately, this book does not deliver.
What it does deliver is some beautiful moments in which I wonder if Gwendolyn hasn't peeked into my brain for an hour, and a fine development of plot in a time that's quite relevant to our experience. The book begins in the middle of the story (which caused some confusion; I'd expected the first chapter to have been stolen from near the end of the tale, somehow), in the spring, with Thea: a stay-at-home mother of three children, two in middle school and the third an almost-preschooler. She lives in a New Jersey suburban town with her consultant husband. That she would suspect her new neighbor, Amanda, of leaving dead animals on her doorstep seems thoroughly dramatic. I wonder what Amanda might have done. Set the co-op preschool against her because of her habit of feeding Amanda's child high-fructose corn syrup, perhaps? Accuse Thea of stealing her husband? In the end, it's none of that, and though it's obvious why Amanda and Thea don't like one another, it's also childish. And I don't get their collective self-righteousness.
By the second chapter, the book becomes rooted in time: the fall of 2000. I flip back to establish how much time will pass -- the first chapter is the spring, and it must be 2001. I wonder if the book will end before September 11, a confusion that remains until nearly the end, when I learn that September 11, 2001, is a way of partially healing the rift between these two women. It's a fine way to weave that tragedy into a domestic drama, though the drama itself is full of bathos, and I hate Amanda (an editor of children's books) and her husband, Aaron (an attorney) for their Manhattan-y stereotypes, their continuous lack of true concern over money.
I hate them both for their quick judgment of each other, their lack of true compassion. They leap to occasional moments of grace, but largely they see each other through the prism of stay-at-home vs. working mom; they say things I would never say to anyone, not even by accident (as is typically the case, with both mothers exhausted and stressed by a windstorm that partially destroyed Amanda's home, Thea casually says "Oh, my mother always said, 'Why bother having children if you don't want to raise them?'" Though she wonders, "Had I really just said that?", she never apologizes. She doesn't take it back. They both are so positive that their roles are right for them; I see the so-called Mommy Wars as far more nuanced. But maybe they're not nuanced in New Jersey, New York, Northern Virginia, Maryland. Maybe all the women are just immature and judgmental and forthrightly bitchy. Maybe they all have enough money to make these choices and feel so righteous about them.
There are many phrases that feel so brilliant, though, that they kept me reading for more of them. At the beginning, Thea says, "...that spring I was wanton with chores, wanton with the ordinary bricks of tasks that held up my family's house of days." It's a beautifully-stated reality of motherhood (at-home or work-outside-the). She remembers her first baby, when she was "in the thick thrall of milky exhaustion, almost like drowning." I want to write that all over so many photos from the first weeks after each of my boys' births. When she mentions that "none of me had expected Iris to be the challenge that she was," I can see my own relationship with Truman; when she watches the neighbors move in, she writes, "I felt a complusion when there were new neighbors. It was selfish, but I just wanted all new people to like me, and I harbored a fantasy each time that there would be a best friend for me." I feel this, I want this too, I hope that my neighbors will be best friends and I think Gwendolyn does a fabulous job of representing the essential problem of neighbors; that you must, by rights, know far more about them than you really wish to know about people you never chose as friends, but at the same time, you long to be friends and to have them look across the fence and think, "wow, those people are just amazing and wonderful and generous. I'm so happy the fates gave them to me!"
I just wish that she could have made Thea and Amanda more likable; I wish instead of exploring the mommy wars and finding them true, that she had found more 'media firestorm,' less substance. In the end, Gwendolyn must promote the Mommy Wars in order to sell her often beautiful book, and that weighs heavily on the lasting value of her work. Read this book. But don't be these women.