In a Country of Mothers
San Francisco Chronicle
By Naomi Schneider
A.M. Homes's intriguing third novel explores the powerful connection between two women as they test—and ultimately violate—the boundaries of the client-therapist bond.
In the ebb and flow of the therapy session, with its attacks and retreats reverberating in unforeseen ways for both parties, In A Country of Mothers captures a world spinning out of control, careening into a danger zone.
Claire Roth is a Manhattan psychotherapist with the trappings of success: an apartment in Greenwich Village, a lawyer husband, two healthy lethargic sons and a summer rental in Amagansett. Onto her couch plops Jody Goodman, a twenty-something filmmaker wrangling with her decision to move to Los Angeles and enroll in the UCLA graduate film program. What starts as garden variety short-term therapy—how to negotiate this transcontinental odyssey—quickly develops into something deeper, more textured and frightfully darker.
Almost immediately Claire and Jody develop an uncanny intimacy as they arrange for almost daily therapy sessions. Claire feels newly engaged, shaken out of a dispiriting ennui that had been part-and-parcel of her efforts to juggle needy patients and needy children. Jody's clever retorts engage Claire. So does the former's personal history—early on she reveals that she was adopted—leading Claire to wonder anew about the baby girl she gave up for adoption nearly 25 years earlier.
It gets better: Both Claire and Jody are from the Washington area; Claire's baby was born in the same month and year as Jody; and the adoptive parents are Jewish, as stipulated by Claire (who, however, is not Jewish) to the lawyer arranging the adoption. Soon Claire becomes convinced that she is indeed Jody's biological mother. She finds herself losing professional distance, hovering around Jody, sick and ripe with a secret mother love.
One of the most successful elements of the novel is the way Homes delineates Jody's ambivalent daughterly dance with her two mother figures. Her therapist-cum-confidante becomes an enticing, if enigmatic, force, while the adoptive mother who had "taken a stranger's child and claimed it as her own," remains a distant, valiantly flawed spectator to Jody's interior life.
Eventually Jody moves to Los Angeles, is stricken by a mysterious illness and returns to the East Coast, where Claire arranges for her convalescence. The give and take, anger and love, trust and betrayal between the two women accelerate wildly, led by Claire's precipitous and volatile compulsion to possess her young charge.
Homes is at her best in evoking the pathos and obsession at the center of the relationships between therapist and patient, mother and child, husband and wife. She is also wickedly funny in her observance of the manners of the urbane, moneyed set. Here is Claire's interpretation of her own patronizing psychiatrist jousting for control during a session: "I'm a Jew, you're the goy. I'm the medical doctor, you're a Ph.D. You're a girl, I'm a boy. I win."
Among the Long Island summer crowd, she writes, "men with thick dark beards, skinny white faces protected by new hardcover books... Two hundred pale weird kids on the beaches. Two hundred and fifty weird parents in the sand."
On the down side, the tactic of using Jody's viruslike infection to drive the second half of the novel seems contrived, never resonating as more than a richly metaphoric plot device.
In a related vein, Homes's portrait of Claire's abandonment of therapeutic decorum could have unfolded with greater nuance, and more effectively showcased the intricate tapestry of Claire and Jody's emotional landscape.
Nevertheless, In a Country of Mothers is a psychologically gripping story; read it and share it with your therapist.