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The Mothers: A Novel Hardcover – April 9, 2013
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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Guest Review of “The Mothers”
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).
Jesse and her husband, Ramon, are a world-traveled, well-educated professional couple who desperately long for a child. Now, after several years of failed IVF treatments, they have decided to adopt. They greet the decision with a sigh of relief, thinking they are just a few manageable steps away from their dream, but that’s before they discover the unique difficulties of the world of domestic adoption. From the interviews and the questions about race and religion to heartbreaking moments when they are scammed, the process turns out to be an arduous journey. For Ramon, the ordeal is frustrating, but for Jesse, the waiting is unbearable, and the grief each time they are not chosen by a birth mother weighs on her heavily. Gilmore does an excellent job of capturing Jesse’s raw and complex emotions, chronicling the strain on her marriage and her changing sense of self as she tries to remain hopeful while she waits. Tense and heartbreaking, with moments of surprising humor, this story about families, mothering, and love is both entertaining and thought-provoking. --Cortney Ophoff
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Jesse, the main character, met her half-Spanish, half-Italian husband in Rome, where she was 'working on [her] dissertation --- a small portion was on gender and generational politics in contemporary Italy'. It would be reasonable to assume, on the basis of her research, that she's interested in Italy or the Italians. Wrong. A few pages later --as we follow her on a visit to her new mother-in-law, a loud, black-haired, hand-wringing, bossy walking stereotype of an Italian matron-- we learn that for our Jesse Italian is 'a language I could barely make out even when it was not being shot off like artillery fire'. So much for her fascinating research on Italian customs and society. Her mother-in-law's rural neighbors are, of course, another stereotype --- ignorant Jew-haters who she imagines muttering, whenever they see her, 'here comes the illiterate Jew who killed Jesus'.
The problem is not that we're supposed to root for a successful adoption for a character like this, which of course we can't. I'm OK with unlikeable characters. The problem is that her views appear to be the 'normal' standard in a book full of that kind of smugness, 'ugly American' attitudes and condescension. I think I'll move on to another book.
Gilmore has managed to address the universal road blocks to adoption without losing the specifically private travails of her adoptive protagonists. Jesse comes from a professional Jewish mother who would read bedtime stories on the phone. She was not only a working mother, she was a militant working mother backed by her ideology. Ramon's family is traditional Italian greeting them with trays of food and ruled by his mother the matriarch. Along each step of their struggle to have a child, from failed in vitro to rejected foreign adoption to the special pain of open adoption in which they interview with the birth mother; they struggle to maintain the security and support of their own marriage. They are forced to confront a series of personal and politically loaded decisions such as openness to race, family insanity, and drug and/or alcohol use of the birth mother.
Through the book, Jesse considers the many mothers of her life and of her struggle to adopt. The writing is fascinating and flows entrancingly throughout the novel. The author can be wry and quite funny in places, because this couple does not slip into that special hell for the reader of taking themselves excessively seriously. This book achieves that delicate balance of re-enacting the very real world of childlessness while maintaining a compassionate but realistic portrait of a particular woman and her husband. I like Jesse, in spite of or maybe because of her shortfallings. She is not an "everywoman" representing childless women, she is Jesse yearning to adopt. I recommend her story to you.