As we approach Mother’s Day, the Hallmark Greeting Card holiday in which everybody pays tribute to mothers and families, however imperfect, two new novels at The Field Library present a somewhat different, though perhaps more realistic, view of what mothers really are and what families are really all about than the sentimental version on display in Mother’s Day.
Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan, gives us a classic Irish American story, starting with the emigration of two sisters from Ireland to Boston. Nora, the older, is 21, and Theresa, the younger, is only 17. Nora is shy, serious, responsible beyond her age, while Theresa is young and gregarious, falling in love with all the possibilities of their new life in America. When Theresa finds herself pregnant and unmarried, it’s Nora who has to come up with a plan that will protect them all, though it’s a plan that will reverberate throughout the rest of both of their lives. The book takes us fifty years later, when Nora is the matriarch of a large family with four grown children all living complicated lives of their own and Theresa, estranged from her sister, is a cloistered nun living in Vermont. A sudden death brings Nora and Theresa back together unexpectedly, and forces both of them to come to terms with the choices they made so long ago. Family sagas are a particular weakness of mine, and a family saga centering on an Irish American family is pretty irresistible as far as I’m concerned. Come and meet the Flynn sisters and stay for all the drama of family secrets held through generations.
If you want a real anti-Mother’s Day kind of story, pick up Mother Land by Paul Theroux and make the acquaintance of a monster mother, a narcissist who is approaching her 100th birthday and shows no signs of slowing down in her efforts to ruin the lives of her husband and her seven children. In her Cape Cod community, she comes across as a wonderful person, pious, frugal, a hard worker, but none of the outsiders know the side she shows her family as she pits one against the other and makes sure none of her children has any sense of security or any impression that she particularly cares about any of them. She claims that only her daughter, Angela, who died in childbirth, was really worthy of her and really understood her. In the meantime, her lawyer son, her professor son, her two daughters who have sacrificed their lives in their devotion to her and her son the writer (the protagonist of this novel), are all struggling to rid themselves of the fierce grip she still holds on all of them even into their middle ages, and maybe, maybe, manage to become a family, in spite of their horrible mother.