In a Country of Mothers
She Who Talks, Pays
By Maggie Paley
The imagination that shapes A.M. Homes's fiction is exhilaratingly perverse. She is the author, for example, of "A Real Doll," a brilliant and totally believable story about a boy seduced by a Barbie doll (published in Ms. Homes's collection The Safety of Objects). Her first novel, Jack, is about a teenage boy whose coming of age develops complications when his divorced father confesses he is homosexual. Fittingly, then, in her new novel, a psychological thriller, she uses a premise that's bleakly comic. In a Country of Mothers tells a truly modern New York love story; it's about the relationship between a young woman and her psychotherapist.
The patient, Jody Goodman, is an aspiring filmmaker who shares with the author a taste for the bizarre beneath the surface.
Put her on location with a film crew in the New York streets at night and she thinks: "Strange things could happen in the middle of the night. But as soon as the sun crossed the horizon and the sour smell of the warming city wafted up from the sidewalks, everything good disappeared as quickly as a dream."
Emotional attachments frighten Jody, probably because she is adopted and because her adoptive parents need her too much.
She is 24, and her mother still phones her from Bethesda. Md., every night at 11 o'clock. Jody goes to see a therapist, Claire Roth, because she's been accepted to film school at the University of California, Los Angeles, and can't make up her mind whether to live that far from home. As it happens, Claire gave up her own infant daughter for adoption 24 years ago, and never got over it. Therapist and patient take to each other immediately. The reader is hooked.
Ms. Homes is acutely tuned to the insults of urban life, and she draws her minor characters and episodes with murderous precision. Jody shares a cab with Carol Heberton, the aging star of the film Jody is working on: "'This movie gives me nightmares,' Heberton said. 'It's so frightening. I've never played a working class person before. Maybe I should have my face done again. What do you think?' Again she looked at Jody. She put her bony-beyond-belief hand on Jody's knee and squeezed it hard. 'I've been approached to do a commercial. Laundry detergent. I haven't done my own laundry since I was 19.'"
Jody's best friend, Ellen, works in a bank and engages in impromptu sex, the more sordid the better, later loudly telling Jody about it. In a restaurant Ellen picks up the check, "Whoever does the most talking pays." Jody has sex with a hunk called Peter, who makes her sick. Pinned under Peter after a night of sexual activity, "she looked down at his penis, sleeping nicely, quietly on his thigh... She liked it better than its owner."
But the real menace in Jody's life comes cloaked in light, a medium that seems to cause Ms. Homes discomfort. When she writes about Jody and Claire, she loses her edge, and the narrative becomes a merely pleasant way of getting from here to there. Although their relationship is what draws the reader in, the dialogue between them is stilted. In their scenes together Jody is too jocular. Claire too unprofessional. Though half the book is devoted to Claire, her family, her practice and her thoughts, she doesn't seem to have an inner life independent of her obsession.
Of course, emotional dependency is like that—the other person is always an unknown, convenient screen on which fantasies of perfect love, parental or otherwise, can be projected. And so, in spite of the questions readers may ask themselves, the entanglement at the center of In a Country of Mothers keeps accumulating power as the narrative rushes to a surprising, fitting conclusion.