Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore

In my former stint as a middle school ELA teacher, I gave mini lessons on author’s purpose.  I found the concept a little bizarre at the time.  Now, I can barely recall the four reasons I listed in those long ago mini lessons. Authors write to persuade, to inform, to entertain and. . . I suppose it’s easier to explain these verbs to thirteen year olds than to say writers write to make sense of their worlds, writers write to make sense of the bewildering, writers write to tackle demons, writers write because writing makes them sane, writers write because they love sculpting words, language and events into a greater whole. Writers write so they can share their take on the human existence with other people.

As I sit thinking back about The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore, I am brought back to the concept of author’s purpose. Why do we write? Why does Gilmore write?  Why do so many fiction writers weave autobiographical elements into their fiction?

I was enthralled by Gilmore’s previous novel Something Red. It drew me into a world I deeply wanted to understand.  I loved Something Red and viewed it as an amazing accomplishment. Gilmore was able to create such vivid and human characters while also capturing the essence of the 60s and 70s and the zeitgeist of that time.  In Something Red, she created a truly believable world.

 Before reading The Mothers I had read Gilmore’s NYT Opinionator essay about her own experiences trying to adopt domestically. So I knew this novel was autobiographical fiction.  In some ways the fact that Gilmore and her husband went through similar experiences than Jesse and Ramon distracted me from the story. I found myself wanting to know how Gilmore’s husband differed from the fictional Ramon, how Gilmore differed from Jessie (besides being employed as a writer who teaches writing as opposed to an academic). Did Gilmore have a similar relationship with her own mother-in-law? Was Jessie’s family similar to her own family?  All of this took me away from the story in some ways. But I suppose it also added another layer of analysis and metacognition into the process of reading this novel.

At times it was hard for me to read The Mothers. I have known I want to have my own children since I was a child myself. There is a great deal of my future I cannot script, and yet that part has always been clear.  As a soon to be thirty year old single woman, it’s hard for me to read about a woman in her late thirties hungering for a child.  It’s close. I understand Jessie’s anxiety and anguish, even if my own anguish and anxiety is slightly different.

Jessie constantly does math to calculate how old she will be once her child is born, once her child graduates from high school. And I found that behavior so painfully true.  Every time I read about a woman with children I do mental math to calculate how old she was when her first child was born. I do similar mathematical calculations when reading about weddings and couplings as well.  Reading about Jessie’s calculations made me realize that so many people have invisible anxieties that trap them in unhealthy behaviors.

The Mothers was so deeply believable and true, and I guess that is because of Gilmore’s own experience. Jessie and Ramon are the only couple at a party without children, I am often the only single person in a gathering of my college friends. Why is it so natural and painful to recognize these comparisons?  In some ways, this book allowed me to envision more uncomfortable comparisons that may be part of my future.

I am stuck with so much unknown, just as Jessie and Ramon were. They had no control over whether a birth mother would choose them to parent her child.  Even with perfect photos and a great description and social workers telling them they would win in a “who would you pick to be your parents” game. 

Overall, The Mothers was a thought-provoking and an emotional read.