Although we know from its first page that the protagonist's mother is dying of cancer, Jayne Anne Phillips's rich, involving novel is not a story of loss but of connection. Thirty-year-old Kate, an unmarried poet, has traveled home to tell her mother, Katherine, that she is expecting a child. A few months later, Katherine will be compelled to move into her daughter's chaotic suburban household.
The birth of Kate's baby approached and her mother consented to chemotherapy, consented to leaving home, consented to never going home again, where she'd lived all her life. She crossed all those lines in her wheelchair, without a whimper, moving down an airport walkway. In its cage, her little dog made a sound. "Hush," she said.
For the balance of MotherKind
, the narrative focus shifts between this visit to the country--like time travel to a sepia-toned world of unpolluted streams, flowering meadows, and rural gas stations--and the new life Kate is building with Matt, her unruly stepsons, and newborn Alexander, while Katherine slowly dies upstairs. As Phillips moves back and forth, she emphasizes the continuity of human life, rather than individual endings or beginnings, and functions like thought itself: obsessively returning to a few prized details, puzzling over old mysteries, making occasional random discoveries or unexpected insights, like treasures turned up by a garden hoe. Recalling her sadness and admiration as she watched her mother rolling toward her in the airport wheelchair, Kate is struck by a realization that "all lines of transit came together in a starry radiance too bright to observe," a magical realm where "manly cowboys glanced away from death and rode on through big-skyed plains and sage."
Though her third novel may contain all the emotional ingredients of a made-for-television movie, Phillips avoids tear-jerking through the use of precisely observed details (the plastic medicine spoon for her mother's morphine, the Christmas songs that double as lullabies for little Alexander) and the absence of cliché. She has even side-stepped, at the end, the requisite death-bed scene, knowing that there is almost no way left to write about such moments without recourse to received language and images. MotherKind uncovers the mixed sources of maternal strength in love, habit, and necessity. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
A meticulous writer, Phillips has produced only four books to date, including the novels Machine Dreams and Shelter, in which she explored the paradoxes of existence from the points of view of youthful characters. This deeply felt, profoundly affecting novel, her best so far, exhibits a maturity of vision both keen and wistful. On a summer day, 30-year-old Kate Tateman flies to her Appalachian hometown to tell her mother, Katherine, that she is pregnant. Always a nonconformist, one who felt most in tune with herself during an itinerant year in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, Kate is not yet married to the baby's father, Matthew, whose divorce is in progress. During the course of the following 18 months, we watch Kate give birth to a son, Tatie; care for Katherine--who has cancer, and decides to move in with Kate and Matt in Boston so she can live to see the baby--and serve as surrogate mother to Matthew's unruly sons, Sam, eight, and Josh, six, who resent her for destroying their home. The narrative captures the quotidian rhythms of domesticity, the stresses of childraising and of nursing the sick, creating a focused yet universal world. A progression of caregiving women help Kate through these life passages: a helper for newborns, various babysitters and the hospice nurses who arrive when Katherine becomes moribund. Phillips explores the intuitive bond between mothers and daughters with unforced grace. All the characters are articulate and introspective; they ponder the human condition, yet function in the daily sphere, with dialogue so easy and true it seems inevitable. While absorbed in the discomforts of childbearing, Kate ruminates about the continuum of time that sweeps her mother toward "the chasm of death"--even as little Tatie thrives and Sam and Josh gradually become integrated into their father's new household. Kate conjectures "that all lines of transit came together in a starry radiance too bright to observe." Amid the inexorable approach of death, the messy certitude and fecund abundance of human life resonate throughout this compassionate and spiritually nourishing novel. 50,000 first printing.
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