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By Meg Wolitzer
Novels run on various kinds of fuel. Jennifer Gilmore’s remarkable novel The Mothers runs on a combination of rage and desire, two dominant emotions felt by her narrator, Jesse, who along with her husband Ramon is on a long, drawn-out quest to have a child. Unable to conceive, Jesse becomes comfortable with the decision to adopt a baby domestically, through what is known as “open adoption,” in which all parties involved are aware of one another’s identities. The phrase “open adoption” sounds on the surface like an idyllic solution to the problems of closed files and unknown or nebulous family histories; and surely it can work well. But this novel presents no idyll. Jesse and Ramon’s adoption path is thorny and infuriating, marred by bureaucracy, pathology, vagueness and scam after scam.
The novel charts the rise and fall of various possible babies, various possible futures. It’s maddening and nerve-wracking to closely experience what this couple goes through, knowing that while they feel such desperate and chaotic emotions, they also need to remain outwardly calm and open and warm, and accept all comers who contact them.
The Mothers is harrowing and hypnotic, a page-turner that makes the reader long to know what ultimately happens to this couple at the end. But the book also has some very interesting things to say about the desire to be a mother, and the state of motherhood itself. What, after all, is a mother? A woman who gives birth? A woman who raises a child born to someone else? A woman whose child is grown? A woman who desires a child so much and feels consumed by maternal feelings? Reading The Mothers will work the reader up with rage and sympathy toward this couple as they make their way through an unpredictable world that offers no assurances of anything. Of course, as Jennifer Gilmore’s powerful novel lets us see, uncertainty is a big part of the quest toward motherhood by any means; and it’s also, of course, a big part of the state of motherhood itself.
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel is The Interestings (Riverhead).