In a Country of Mothers
Paying a High Price For Rocking the Cradle
By Vince Passaro
For a long time now, A.M. Homes has been a young writer to watch, so, for better or worse, her new novel, In A Country of Mothers, qualifies as that thing we were watching for. Homes is the author previously of a novel, Jack, and an eye-catching collection of stories, The Safety of Objects, which distinguished her as a shrewdly warped observer of the suburban family scene. Here again she turns to domestic matters, this time more urban than not—family as it lives packed close together, disintegrating not from spacious grassy boredom but, more interestingly, from the corrosive power of its own internal energies and unaccommodating desires.
The story glides with easy regularity between two main gravitational forces: a distracted, disconnected young woman named Jody Goodman, who is about to begin a promising career as a moviemaker by joining the country's premier film-studios graduate program, and her New York City therapist, Claire Roth, a social worker who lives with her husband and two sons in a cramped apartment. Jody is a survivor, sexually confused, subject to depression and feelings of anxiety, and worthlessness—in other words, a too-knowing and easily lost female twentysomething. Claire is a survivor of earlier cataclysms—counterculture, marriage and childbearing, all experienced on the boomer schedule—who now, moving into her 40s, finds herself an unwilling 1990s urban doyenne with dreams of a country house.
The relationship between the two, therapist and patient, proves convenient as far as the narrative is concerned—bringing the two characters together on a regular basis, making their concerns, otherwise wholly separate, feel intertwined. Yet even so, we begin to get the feeling early on that these two lives are entangled in ways not easily predicted or proved. It turns that Claire, already frustrated with her family life—a scene of shrugging masculinity in which everyone but her gets to pee on the toilet seat—hands this bullet over to her well-stoked imagination and lets herself run with it. When Jody becomes mysteriously ill and has to leave graduate school to return to her adoptive mother in Washington, where (to Claire's ever more anxious chagrin) nothing helps her get better, all the possibilities for conflict and emotionally explosive resolutions are in place.
While the plot is a little creaky with coincidence, what makes it so interesting is Homes's take on the feminine instincts of motherhood—a kind of terrifying cycle of consuming love and abandonment. For Jody, her adoptive mother is a figure from whom she cannot break away, even after turning to a series of female therapists (read substitutes). Her helplessness, now that she is in her mid-20s, in the face of real life outside of the home, is disturbing. Even more disturbing is her mother's willingness to stroke and exploit her need. Claire, who gave up a child, cannot get over the loss, regardless of the love she's found with her husband and later children; her ferocious desire to recover what she has given up becomes the gun-in-the-drawer of this plot. Shown in the first act, it has to go off in the last.
Homes presents all this in an easy and involving style. The writing is competent and smart, especially keen in the dialogue, which feels flawlessly contemporary. Her take on Claire's 40ish doldrums and Jody's edgy vulnerability is complex and, in the depictions of New York life, both single and married, right on the mark. There is also a sharp tug of subaqueous sexuality that drives the reader along: Claire and her husband, Claire and Jody, Jody and a variety of figures, including a tenacious and unsavory male sadist—an old school chum, as F.W. Dixon used to say in The Hardy Boys.
There are many occasions when we suspect that Claire's growing obsession with Jody is, in reality, misplaced lust, a possibility which does not detract from its power over Claire or the events of the story. If there is a problem here, it is Claire's development, the speed with which Homes takes her from competent sanity to out-of-control obsession. Even so, the writing is strong enough to take you, willingly, to the terrible end. In a Country of Mothers is emotionally and psychologically powerful entertainment.