What is the “social life” of a mother? I distinctly remember feeling that I had no such thing when my children were babies, but even those women who never seem to leave the couch for breastfeeding are still negotiating their place in a social world. How will we interact with these new family members? How will we let their existence define us? How will they change our perspective and alter the way we relate to others? Which avenues will motherhood open to us and which will it obstruct? This month, our editors recommend books that touch on various ways that families fit (or don’t fit!) into society.
Bonnie Pike, “Senior Mama” Columnist, writes, “When I read this month's ‘Essential Reading’ theme, the one title that sprang to mind was The Family Fang. I grinned when I thought of it, because it's such a bizarre novel, but it is right on topic. The Fang family parents devote their lives to performance art, the subversive sort that disrupts the smooth flow of ordinary social life in very public places. Their two kids, Annie and Buster -- whom they refer to as Child A and Child B -- are reluctant participants, drawn into these performances without their consent or even their knowledge. As adults they drift away from their parents, but are forced to return when their mom plots and pulls off the biggest performance of their lives. As the mom of a large, multi-ethnic family, some of us with obvious disabilities, I sometimes feel as though our every public outing has the feel of performance art. So I found the novel both amusing and empathetic, despite its grotesque rendering of the social life of the conflicted Fang family.”
Suzanne Kamata, Fiction Co-Editor, suggests a story about a family with a very different attitude toward public life: “Jerene Jarvis Johnston, the mother at the heart of Wilton Barnhardt's Lookaway, Lookaway, is all about keeping up appearances and maintaining her family's place in Southern society. She knows how to throw a party, plan a wedding, and how to sweep secrets under the rug. (Her precious daughter did not try to murder her husband with an antebellum pistol; it was an unfortunate misunderstanding.) The Johnston men may drink and dither too much, but Jerene is a steel magnolia. I found this social satire wildly entertaining.”
Caroline Grant, Editor-in-Chief, offers a title that focuses more on the fragile family made by friendship: “Meg Wolitzer's books often explore the complicated ways that friendships change, and her newest novel, The Interestings, is no exception. It introduces us to a group who meet at an arts camp the summer that Nixon resigns, and it follows them deep into their messy middle years. At the core of the group is the unlikely but steady friendship between Ash, a willowy young woman who becomes a feminist theatre director, and Jules, who gives up her dream of being a comic actress for steadier work as a therapist. Money and motherhood, especially, put the women in very different worlds, but their friendship endures. The book is an engrossing exploration of the various ways factors like class, art, money, envy, talent, and motherhood affect our relationships with our friends.”
“Four Worlds” Columnist Avery Fischer Udagawa takes us from fiction to social science: “I read scholarly articles by Carol Dweck in a child development class, and then discovered her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, written for a popular audience. Here Dweck marshals extensive research to suggest that ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets deeply affect our learning and interactions—and that we can control them. We can also give our children control. For kids and mamas stymied by shyness, flummoxed by friendships, or ready to retool for relationships of any kind, this book offers solid, practicable advice.”