Tag Archives: Great American Novel

Three on a Theme for Mother’s Day

In advance of (American) Mother’s Day, I picked up two novels and a set of short stories that explore the bonds between mothers and their children, especially daughters. The relationships can be fraught or fractured, but always provide good fodder for psychologically astute fiction.

 

Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander (2020)

Hope: A Tragedy, Auslander’s 2012 debut, is among my absolute favorites, an outrageously funny novel that imagines Anne Frank is alive and dwelling in a suburban attic, frantically tapping out her endless magnum opus. Solomon Kugel, the sap blessed to have an icon sharing his home, has a deluded mother who actually grew up in Brooklyn but believes she survived the Holocaust and now hoards food and curses the Nazis who ruined her life.

I start with that bit of synopsis because Mother for Dinner showcases rather analogous situations and attitudes, but ultimately didn’t come together as successfully for me. It’s a satire on the immigrant and minority experience in the USA – the American dream of ‘melting pot’ assimilation that we see contradicted daily by tribalism and consumerism. Seventh Seltzer works in Manhattan publishing and has to vet identity stories vying to be the next Great American Novel: “The Heroin-Addicted-Autistic-Christian-American-Diabetic one” and “the Gender-Neutral-Albino-Lebanese-Eritrean-American” one are two examples. But Seventh is a would-be writer himself, compelled to tell the Cannibal-American story.

For years Mudd, the Seltzer family matriarch, has been eating Whoppers for each meal in a customary fattening-up called the Cornucopiacation. She expects her 12 children, who are likely the last of the Cannibal kind, to carry on the tradition of eating her corpse after her death. It’s a way for ancestors to live on in their descendents. The Cannibal Guide, disguised as a deer processing manual, sets out the steps: Drain (within two hours), Purge, Partition, Consume (within 24 hours). Unclish, the Seltzers’ uncle, drilled the rules into them when they were kids through rhymes like “A bite and half / and you won’t need another, / whether it’s your father, your sister, / or even your mother.” From her deathbed, Mudd apportions her body parts to her offspring, some tenderly and some vengefully. Their inheritance – a Brooklyn dump that will still net $5.2 million – is conditional on them performing the ritual.

Interspersed with sections on the practicalities of butchering and cooking a morbidly obese woman are flashbacks to key moments of Cannibal history, which has turned into myth. In 1914, Julius Seltzer left the paradisiacal “Old Country” with his sister Julia, who pretended to be his wife and traveled with him to Detroit to work for Henry Ford. (An overt parody of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.) Mudd is vocally intolerant of all other minority groups, from Blacks to homosexuals, and always chooses the version of history that reflects best on her own ancestors, while the Seltzers’ father was more willing to admit flaws.

My proof copy, with a joke on the cover, came with a napkin!

Auslander is pushing the boundary of what an author can get away with, not just with a literal cannibalism storyline but also with jokes about historical atrocities and the recent trend for outing beloved figures as reprehensible (what Seventh calls “Contemporary Assholization Studies”). He shares Lionel Shriver’s glee for tipping sacred cows. I did appreciate his picture of the pervasiveness of xenophobia – the “You’re Not Me” look that anyone can get when walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood – and his willingness to question the value of beliefs and ceremonies once they’ve stopped being reasonable or of use. But with all the siblings known by numbers, it’s hard to distinguish between them. The novel ends up heavy on ideas but light on characterization, and as a whole it leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

My rating:


With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (2016)

{CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.}

Like so many who were impressed with the Women’s Prize-shortlisted The Vanishing Half, I rushed to get hold of Bennett’s California-set first novel, which, while not as skillfully put together, is nearly as emotionally engaging. After her mother’s suicide, 17-year-old Nadia Turner only has her father, a Marine, but they are bolstered by their church family at Upper Room Chapel. Nadia is a bright girl headed to Michigan for college, but in her senior year she gets mixed up with Pastor Sheppard’s 21-year-old son, Luke, leading to a pregnancy and abortion that his parents swiftly cover up / pay for. Luke drops her at the clinic and hands over the money, but doesn’t pick her up; that looks the acrimonious end of their relationship.

But in the years to come, especially when Nadia takes a break from law school to care for her father, their lives will intersect again. Nadia’s best friend in that final year of high school was Aubrey Evans, who is estranged from her mother, who failed to protect the girl from sexual abuse at the hands of her own boyfriend. Now Aubrey wears a purity ring, enamored with the idea that faith will make her clean again. Once Nadia leaves, she starts dating Luke, ignorant of her best friend’s history with him. This sets up a love triangle mired in layers of secrets.

There is dramatic irony here between what the characters know about each other and what we, the readers, know – echoed by what “we,” the church Mothers, observe in the first-person plural sections that open most chapters. I love the use of a Greek chorus to comment on a novel’s action, and The Mothers reminded me of the elderly widows in the Black church I grew up attending. (I watched the video of a wedding that took place there early this month and there they were, perched on aisle seats in their prim purple suits and matching hats.)

Nadia and Aubrey are relatable characters, and Luke earns our sympathy after the cruel return of his football 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 facets of motherhood: memories of a mother, the absence of a mother, the choice to become a mother, and people who act in the place of a mother by providing physical care or being a source of moral support.

The timeline is a bit too long, which makes the plot wander more than it needs to, but this is a warm and bittersweet novel that always held my interest. Bennett has produced two winners in a row, and I look forward to seeing what she’ll do next.

A favorite line: “Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” (not literally vast like in the Auslander!)

Source: Birthday gift (secondhand) from my wishlist last year

My rating:

 

Close Company: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, ed. by Christine Park and Caroline Heaton (1987)

I read 14 of 25 stories, skipping to the ones that most interested me (by familiar names like Sue Miller, Sylvia Plath, and Jeanette Winterson), and will read the rest next year. The only story I’d encountered before was Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” originally published in Bluebeard’s Egg. The title phrase comes from Jamaica Kincaid’s story. A recurring theme is women’s expectations for their daughters, who might repeat or reject their own experiences. As the editors quote from Simone de Beauvoir in the introduction, “the daughter is for the mother at once her double and another person.”

I particularly liked “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of “The Little Mermaid,” and “Swans” by Janet Frame, in which a mother takes her two little girls for a cheeky weekday trip to the beach. Fay and Totty are dismayed to learn that their mother is fallible: she chose the wrong beach, one without amenities, and can’t guarantee that all will be well on their return. A dusky lagoon full of black swans is an alluring image of peace, quickly negated by the unpleasant scene that greets them at home.

Two overall standouts thus far were “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker and “The Unnatural Mother” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In Walker’s story, which draws on the parable of the Prodigal Son, a hip Afro-wearing daughter returns to her mother’s rural home and covets the quilts and butter churn – to her this is quaint folk art that she wants to take away and display, but her mother and sister resent her condescension towards their ‘backward’ lives.

Gilman is best known for The Yellow Wallpaper, but this story has a neat connection with another classic work: the main character is named Esther Greenwood, which is also the protagonist’s name in Plath’s The Bell Jar (consider this a preview of my next Book Serendipity roundup!). A gossiping gaggle of women discuss Esther’s feral upbringing and blame it for her prioritizing altruism over her duty to her child. A perfect story.

Source: Free mall bookshop

My rating: (so far)

 

If you read just one … Make it The Mothers. (But do also pick out at least a few stories from the Close Company anthology.)

Classic and Doorstopper of the Month: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)

Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.

Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.

The John Steinbeck House (his childhood home) in Salinas, CA. By Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.

This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.

Steinbeck with his third wife, Elaine Scott, in 1950. The character of Cathy may be based on his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who cheated on him on multiple occasions and asked for a divorce. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)

At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.

Page count: 602

My rating:

 

A few favorite passages:

“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”

“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”

“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

 

During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.

 

“Salinas” by Laura Marling

When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins

With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder

Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]

Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”

 

“By the Skin of My Teeth” by Duke Special

My luck ran out just east of Eden

Oh, I proved you right

I’m a danger […]

I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure