Two Novels of Ambivalent Parenthood: The Push & A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself

These 2021 releases I read from the library stood out to me for daring to suggest that sometimes children aren’t little angels and parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain

“Do you wish you weren’t a mother?”

“Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.”

A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator, this is in the same vein as The Woman in the Window, Gone Girl, and A Good Enough Mother. I hardly ever pick up novels that fit into this genre, but these were all well worth making an exception for. The Push feels closer to literary fiction than to crime. Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. Now reduced to being a stalker and an impersonator, Blythe vows to write everything down as evidence, taking care to note when she first had cause to question whether Violet was normal. A daddy’s girl from the start, Violet never bonded with Blythe and admitted to deliberately hurting other children in her preschool. But how much of what happened next was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed?

The inkblot design of the cover cleverly evokes classical psychological concepts and experiments. A key topic the novel explores is how trauma is passed down through the generations: Blythe had worried that she wasn’t cut out for motherhood, chiefly because her mother and her grandmother both abandoned their daughters. “Blythe, the women in this family, we’re different. You’ll see,” her mother had warned. The exchange between Blythe and her mother that opens my review reiterates her suspicion: some people just aren’t cut out for parenting. Blythe can’t dismiss her daughter as evil because she knows how much guilt rests on her own shoulders, and because she doubts that she saw what she thought she saw. Moreover, the fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood: she’s seen how wonderful it can be, but also how it can turn bad. The nuance sets the book apart from run-of-the-mill thrillers. Yet it’s in short, page-turning chapters, so it reads very quickly and would make a great book club selection.

My rating:

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

At its best, autofiction is an intriguing blend of memoir and fiction, all of it true and universal in appeal. Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moments here and there, all in a mere 180 pages – could hardly be more different from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, but both are equally dedicated to the unique alchemy of crystallizing fatherhood by illuminating its daily heartaches and joys.

Years ago, “the writer” and his wife were presented with a choice. When genetic tests indicated mosaicism, they terminated their first pregnancy. Instead of a little girl, they later had a baby boy who presented his own challenges, including delayed development and possible ASD. Years later, the abortion still haunts “the father.” He attempts to exorcise his shame (the title = how Anaïs Nin defined it) by volunteering at an abortion clinic. Escorting patients to and from their cars, ignoring the taunts of protestors, he lives out his conviction that you can never fully know what others are going through and why they make the decisions they do.

Davies gets the tone just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing the things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to – starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. Soon after the writer’s son is born: “He feels about himself for love, the way he might pat his pockets for his wallet and keys. Do I love him yet? Is this love?” As the boy grows into a figure of pathos: “All the things they’ve imagined him growing up to be: A basketball player, a fireman, a chef. [vs. what he actually seems to be] Allergic, friendless, autistic.” Davies also has a gift for zinging phrases, like “the deification of babies” and “the baby-industrial complex” of Babies R Us.

But what I most loved was the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life. “All the coin flips. All the what ifs. Like the litany of prompts he uses in writing class. Heads and tales.” The writer has a background in physics (as Davies himself does), so often brings up Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor – in any situation, things might have gone either way. Now that the possibilities have narrowed to one and the path has been started, what will you do? The treatment of luck, in particular, led me to think of this as a cross between Larry’s Party by Carol Shields and What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. The style is similar to Jenny Offill’s; another similar and nearly contemporaneous release is Brood by Jackie Polzin.

I know I read The Fortunes back in 2016 but I retain virtually no memory of it. Davies’s prose, themes, and voice stood out much more for me here. I’ll try his novel The Welsh Girl, too, maybe even for book club later this year. This is an early entry on my Best of 2021 list.

Favorite lines:

“this is also what the internet is for, he thinks. If online porn universalizes shame, social media universalizes judgment. Both exercises in self-gratification.”

“An older colleague told him once cats were baby substitutes. ‘They weigh the same, they sleep on you, they roll around on their backs kicking their legs in the air. They mewl.’”

For more on abortion from a male perspective: The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto.

My rating:

23 responses

  1. I definitely like the sound of The Push – might propose it for our book group – we’ll be picking ‘P is for’ books next month.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I recommended it to the new book club that’s started up in my neighbourhood. Some might find it upsetting, but it would be an easy one to get through and there certainly would be a lot to talk about.

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  2. Hard to get away from The Push on my Twitter timeline which tends to put me off but it does sound worth reading. I remember the outcry when Rachel Cusk’s memoir of becoming a mother, A Life’s Work, was published as she’d dared to paint a different picture of motherhood from the soft focus version.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t remember how I heard about The Push — probably via Goodreads rather than Twitter, so we have a different pool of bookish influences!

      I’ve not got on well with Rachel Cusk’s books in general, but that is one I’d like to try.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I recommended that Rachel Cusk to a good friend when it was new; she had one child at the time and soon would have a second, whereas I was new to step-parenting (two kids, young at the time). My friend was not impressed, with the book or with my having recommended it. 😀

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      2. Recommendations can be a fraught business…

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  3. I’m intrigued by both of these. I’ll try to see if I can find them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My library came through for me on both.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, who knew? Just ordered The Push from the library.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You’ve sold me on The Push. I read Girl A last month and found it a bit meh and thought that The Push might be another one of those, but it sounds a whole lot better!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was initially unsure about it myself because I’m so wary of crime/thrillers in general, but it hooked me in. (The great thing about reading books from the library is that there’s no regret if something doesn’t work out. I can just return it unread and it still helps their stats.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is really stupid reason not to read a book but I find the cover of The Push so horrendous it’s really put me off! It looks like a squashed fly inkblot and I hate that shade of purple! However, your review makes it sound v interesting so I will have to overcome this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, I like the cover in general but not the purple. I’ve certainly been put off for less before (once, recently, by a font). It reminded me a lot of A Good Enough Mother, so I reckon you’ll enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought it sounded like A Good Enough Mother!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I always get excited when I see a 5/5 rating by you! That Davies might be worth a try. Best thing I’ve read recently on parenthood–ambivilent-ish–was The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. Seems folks either really enjoyed it or really did not. It had an auto fiction feel. Also, did you hear the recent Literary Twitter hullabaloo: Joyce Carol Oates’ tweet about auto fiction? Quite the stir!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did see that! I even quoted ‘wan husk’ in a review the other day 😉

      I tried the first 6% or so of the Kiesling when it first came out and wasn’t drawn in, but it might be one to go back to another time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha–‘wan husk!’ Yes, now every time I go to write I’m going to be worrying about my husk! (Or probably not.)

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  8. It’s interesting to read your thoughts on The Push – it seems to be really huge over here. Even at our library, I’m 27th on the holds list which is unheard of! So of course I want to read it to find out what the fuss is about. You have reassured me that I won’t be wasting my time. I like books that question traditional ideas of motherhood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That makes sense — she was the publicity director of Penguin Books Canada and lives in Toronto. It’s definitely an international bestseller, though! Normally all the hype and the thriller-y vibe would put me off, but I found that it had literary quality, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] injury. (I was intrigued to see that Peter Ho Davies was one of Bennett’s teachers – his novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a rare picture of male grief after abortion, also present here.) Bennett explores multiple […]

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  10. […] The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator. […]

    Like

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