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In a Country of Mothers

Washington Post

Tug-of-War Of Love And Need

By Leigh Allison Wilson

A book by A.M. Homes is not for the fainthearted or, for that matter, the hardhearted. She has the ability to scare you half to death with portraits of good people gone terribly wrong, while at the same time offering visions of what might have been, what should have been, if only. In a Country of Mothers, her third book, peoples its landscape—not surprisingly—with mothers and children, those who mother, those who are mothered. And, as is usual in her work, Homes investigates her territory with a devastating lucidity. 

The views of two women dominate the book, their ways of seeing the world documented in alternating chapters so that they very structure of the novel comes to imitate the fierce mental tug-of-war that ultimately defines their relationship.


Jody Goldman is a wisecracking young talent on her way to UCLA's film school, but she's afraid to leave New York City, afraid to stay, afraid that any minute her mother will whisk her back home to Washington, D.C., "to be plunked into a vat of Mr. Bubble and left there till [she's] all shrivelly." Claire Roth is a successful therapist in her forties, a wife and mother of two boys (sometimes three, depending upon her attitude toward her husband at the time). By chance Claire ends up with Jody as her patient because, as Jody tells her over the telephone, "I'm having some trouble making career decisions." The trouble, of course, is just beginning.

Jody and Claire are both likeable people and so it seems natural that they come to like each other. But what is "natural" in this novel quickly becomes problematic. Jody is the adopted daughter of a woman who lost a son to illness just weeks before the adoption, a fact that sends Jody into an agony of self-doubt about her role in her own family. She thinks, "Just as her biological mother had no way of caring for an infant, her adoptive mother was unable to nurse a sick child, [she] could not take care of herself. They were all useless to each other."

Claire, before her marriage and around the time Jody was born, gave up a daughter for adoption under horrific conditions she deeply regrets and never discusses. Although her husband, Sam, is a guy everyone says she's lucky to have, her sons a fine achievement, she feels that "living in a house that was strictly male felt like a never-ending frat party... if she weren't there, she was convinced they'd pee in the sinks, out the windows, in dirty coffee cups, wherever it was convenient." Jody becomes the daughter Claire wishes she had raised; in fact, she becomes a daughter she plans to raise.

Between these two women, power, desire, control and love become unbearable compulsions—the relationship between mothers and daughters, therapists and patients, the needed and now the needy suddenly reverses or grows absolutely unclear, or simply becomes a crazy situation about which no one knows what to do: "If it didn't kill you, it could last forever, waxing and waning." Mothering or being mothered in this novel is not only risky, it's damned frightening. 

One of the many abilities Homes shows in this book goes beyond her two main characters. Their wit and humor, their shadings of character, their incredible complexity, all are a given. But the supporting cast provides a strong subtext to the tug-of-war points of view of the protagonists. Claire's husband, for instance, is a well-drawn man whose family happiness comes first. In their marriage, because of the way he is, there is electricity, a promise that things could change Claire. If only. In Jody's life there is Harry Birenbaum, an elderly and semi-famous film director whose "stomach started at his collar and went down to his knees." He can't keep his hands off of her breasts, and is nevertheless absolutely sure of her future success as a filmmaker. If only. 

What was, what is, what could have been, these are questions that conflict this novel. A.M. Homes is a very dangerous writer. Danger for a reader of fiction is usually a safe place, the place of voyeurs and bystanders. Homes creates a much scarier place, a place you've always suspected might happen to you—maybe even should happen to you—if you paid more attention. This country of mothers is not one you easily enter, but it is also one you do not easily leave.

 

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