Mothers and children have been in each other’s arms (and at each other’s throats) since the beginning of time. The three books in this week’s book club explore, celebrate, and mourn this relationship, focusing on touchstone moments and that aching feeling of growing up. Each novel features a strong — or strained — mother-child pairing that forms its core.
1. The Lauras by Sara Taylor ($26): Adolescent, gender-fluid Alex is just emerging when their mother pulls them into a grand adventure; suddenly uprooted from their bed, they’re suddenly shoved into the car, leaving their father and their town. It will be years before the adventure comes to a close. Life on the road is tough, and their goal is initially confusing to Alex; what is this marked-up map that Ma carries, and why do they need to visit all of these places? Ma is apparently on a My Name Is Earl-type quest, to reconnect with people from her past and make things right. These people are who Ma calls “The Lauras” — female friends who helped her through her own difficult adolescence.
“Usually when a person looks back, they have to reconstruct, invent, guess at what was said or felt or smelled. That twenty-four hours, starting with the moment we left home, was burned into my memory. Even now, years after, I can’t forget the grease and smoke, the flannel on skin, the fear of realizing that my life was taking a ninety-degree turn. Some part of me knew, as I listened to my mother’s footsteps coming toward my bedroom door, that everything was about to change,” Alex muses. “That tipping feeling, of everything I knew and thought and trusted being pulled out from under me, has stayed with me for thirty-odd years, as if she branded it into my skin with her fingertips when she dragged me out of the house.”
Alex learns a great deal about life, sexuality, and relationships on this madcap journey, reminding us of the age-old adage that sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself. Narrated by an older, wiser Alex, the book recounts these lessons looking back from a more mature vantage point. Readers looking for clues as to Alex’s birth gender will be disappointed but will learn a lot about their own assumptions about gender roles.
2. Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang ($26): Poet Zhang’s first collection of short stories, Sour Heart, is a series of interconnected tales of daughters of Chinese immigrants. Alex learns a lot after being sprung from their childhood home, and the complex mix of identity politics that comes with the immigrant experience, combined with the powder keg of teenagehood, leads to strained mother-daughter relationships and shocking discoveries. Each of the seven stories features a different character, each narrating her story in the first person to provide a sense of varied experience with pointed, distinct similarities.
Growing up in New York City, the girls find their families’ poverty leads to a lack of choices and a lack of privacy, as both constant close proximity to others and being left at home alone with other teenagers has an effect on their lives. (It’s not quite Lord of the Flies, but you get the idea: There’s a lot of broken boundaries, between sexuality, power, and bodily harm.)
Perhaps the most shocking realization of all is the eventual feeling of gratitude many of them feel toward their parents as some of these daughters age and realize the sacrifices their parents have made. “‘What makes you happy makes Mommy happy,’ she would always say to me, sometimes in Chinese, which I wasn’t so good at, but I tried for her and for my father, and when I couldn’t I would answer them in English, which I also wasn’t so good at, but it was understood that while I could still improve in either language, my parents could not, they were on a road to nowhere, the wall was right up against them, so it was up to me to get really good, it was up to me to shine and that scared me because I wanted to stay behind with them, I didn’t want to go any further than they could go.” These realizations are underscored by the stories’ exploration into their mothers’ lives, as we see a mother give up on her artist dreams to come to America, and others’ need to fall back on scams and dumpster diving just to survive.
3. Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian ($26): In Iskandrian’s novel, set in the early 1990s, freshman Agnes keenly feels the absence of her mother, who has gone missing, walking out on Agnes and her father. This isn’t the first experience Agnes has had with loss; a few years before her mother’s disappearance (and perhaps behind it) came her older brother Simon’s suicide. Needless to say, Agnes is somewhat adrift in her first year of college but finds two things to be her saving graces: the reassuring structure of academia, and the rush of her boyfriend, Tea Rose. Perhaps desperate for some sort of contact, Agnes doesn’t seem to care about whether the sex she has with Tea Rose is protected or not.
You can probably see where this is going: As college relationships often do, Agnes’s ends in a sudden breakup, but now the daring daughter is on the way to becoming a mother herself. Considering she’s had to take care of herself, though, it’s not much of a stretch. Iskandrian alternates between telling the story through Agnes’ perspective and showing us the letters Agnes writes to a mother she can’t actually contact. Agnes can now only rely on her father, who is caught up in his own grief, and her one actually supportive friend Joan, who may see her through this. In the letters, we see her inner turmoil and quiet resolve.
“When my mother caught me rummaging in her nightstand, she said, You must never look in there again. She said, Certain things are private. Do You know what private means? I did, but I told her I didn’t, which was maybe my version of what private mean. When something is private, she said, it belongs only to you. From then on, I understood my mother to be private, in how she kept herself to herself, and in how, in my mind, she belonged only to me.” Iskandrian captures the loneliness in the age before internet ubiquity, with deft humor and a keen eye for relationships. Being a daughter without a mother is hard, but you can do it if you dare.
What books make you appreciate your mom? Tag us in your next family read @BritandCo.
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