It seems like ages since I finished a book because I’ve had too many on the go at once, but this morning, I finally put down Sue Miller’s The Good Mother and it was with a sigh of complicated satisfaction. I can’t remember who recommended this to me when I asked for suggestions but I send out grateful thanks as this is one brilliantly written, atmospheric, intelligent, acutely sensitive and utterly compelling. I’m trying to think how best to talk about it without giving the plot away, as its twists are essential to reading pleasure (although I’m not sure pleasure is quite the right word here). Anyhow, it concerns our narrator, Anna Dunlap, who tells us her story in the first person from a point in the future when it is long over and done with. She begins by explaining her early childhood to anxiously demanding parents who long for her to be special. Her mother comes from a large, wealthy family, in which achievement is all and she is in competition with her sisters, Anna’s aunts, for the most outwardly impressive family set-up. Anna has some talent at playing the piano, but when it becomes apparent that this will never be sufficient for a musical career, there is a sense in which she feels abandoned by her family, rejected into the realms of the ordinary. Only one of her relations, her aunt Babe, the youngest and most rebellious member, provides any kind of significant unconditional, open love for Anna, and Babe turns out to have her own tragedies.
Anna marries and has a daughter, Molly, and when the story opens, she is alone with her in the days immediately after a perfectly amicable divorce from her husband, Brian. It seems to have been an empty, drifting sort of marriage, and one that they are both happy to leave behind them. Being a single mother is not easy, the divorce is one more black mark against her in the balance sheet of her family, but Anna is succeeding in putting her life back together when she falls passionately in love with an artist, Leo. Now I’ll have to skip over a lot of plot here as I don’t want to give the game away, but Anna ends up in a bitter custody battle with Brian, and what is really on trial is her existence as a sexual being. Compared with what I was reading about Anne Sexton (for instance), Anna has done nothing to be ashamed of, but once a story enters the public domain of a law court and encounters the knee-jerk moralizing of a puritanical society, reason, compassion and understanding go out the window. I’m really intrigued by the way that the law is so regularly represented in literature as a blinkered and prejudiced, arbitrary sop to the most clichéd of public opinions. The law is there in stories not to bring about justice, but to safeguard a culture’s cherished beliefs. This book reminded me a lot of Albert Camus’s The Outsider in which Meursault is condemned to death essentially for not having cried at his mother’s funeral. But thinking about it, literature is there to open the reader’s mind to the multiplicity in stories, to the complexity of any tale and the wealth of possible interpretations each one contains within the warp and weft of its pattern. Its relationship to stories is in direct opposition to that of the law, which takes two opposing interpretations and decides which one is right in a way that alters life irrevocably for all who are involved. For literature this is a travesty of the power of stories, an outrage committed against the creation of meaning, unless we’re talking about crime fiction, where the two sets of narratives, literary and legal, find a way to go hand in hand.
But what is also at the heart of this book is a subtle and careful inquiry into the concept of the false self. Children who find their sense of self compromised by parents who need them to ‘be’ something too much (good, clever, pretty, acceptable, complicit, etc) often develop a false self, a complicated way of acting that looks very natural but which hides a threatened private part that is often demonized and longed for at the same time. Anna’s early experiences lead her to want very much for an open, honest, accepting climate for her daughter to grow up in. But as the story progresses so she comes to question the possibility of mothering without certain boundaries, even when their absence seems to be a good and truthful thing. Throughout the story there is a fascination with issues of distance, with the bliss and the threat of intimacy, the loneliness and the safety of isolation. The distances which are complex enough in everyday relationships become ten times more difficult to negotiate when it comes to motherhood, and for a woman who must be both parent and lover, mother and independent person, it is all too easy to misjudge the gaps that can be driven through. Once again, this book presents a painful paradox; mothers are always to blame and this is both an outrage and an unavoidable truth.
I haven’t really begun to do justice to this story, as I want everyone to go away and read it. It’s very, very good. I have nearly finished Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, as well. I’ve been reading this so very slowly, but I still feel I couldn’t have done it any other way. Posting about it is going to be quite a challenge. But once I’ve finished it, then I think I’ve finally cleared my backlog of books and I can embark on a new set. I’ve committed to read Alice Munroe’s The View from Castle Rock for A Curious Singularity, and Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel for The Slaves of Golconda. I also want to read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, encouraged by a friend who did graduate studies on his work. I’ve only ever read the feminist Kate Millett on Miller, so I’m looking forward to reading him and seeing for myself how controversial his representation of women is. But first, tomorrow, I’m hoping to finish Beth Janzen’s poetry collection, The Enchanted House. So, lots of good stuff ahead.