There’s no more vulnerable time in a woman’s life than just after she’s had a baby. No one instinctively knows what to do, how to feel, what to be concerned about and what to ignore, or how to get past the exhaustion of no sleep and the strains that a newborn can put on a marriage or a bank account.
So how to craft a suspenseful novel from such a universal yet mundane topic?
Author Aimee Molloy (“However Long the Night”) ventures from her nonfiction comfort zone to tackle her first novel. In “The Perfect Mother,” a group of Brooklyn women bond during their pregnancies and, one by one, have their babies, return to their support group and set out to learn the hard way: by doing it and sharing their successes and disappointments with one another.
We soon learn that these “May mothers” have not really gotten to know the members of their group beyond the commonality of their babies’ birth month. They are grossly preoccupied with sleep habits, nursing challenges, losing their baby weight, charting their child’s development, relating to their husbands and deciding whether to go back to work and find day care in the New York jungle or put careers on hold for a while.
To fuel the drama, it turns out that each of these moms has a secret that she’s chosen to conceal from the group. One has a notorious past and has completely remade herself. Another fails to mention her family’s wealth and fame. Two have suffered terrible losses. And a central character, Winnie, may be the most complex of all, a onetime child TV star and now a single mom who has dissolved into an anonymous existence in hopes of going unrecognized and leading a “normal” life.
Then something happens to disrupt the group and send their budding confidence flying out the window: One of their babies disappears during a rare moms’ night out.
As the friends rally around the frantic mother whose child has vanished, slowly the back stories and secrets come out and we learn about the strengths and frailties of these women, at the center of which is always the self-doubt that comes with motherhood. The stress of trying to solve the mystery, to save the baby, and coming under suspicion in the abduction tests their relationships and pushes them to take desperate measures that blur societal and even legal lines.
One nice writing touch is an anonymous narrator that pops in and out of the story line. We’re not sure if she’s one of the moms or someone we haven’t been introduced to yet, and that device keeps readers guessing and engaged.
Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) has picked up the film rights to this twisting tale, which the publisher tells us “will complete the informal suburban thriller trifecta that began with ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl on the Train.’ ”
It’s an engaging read, but never riveting or chilling, and the mostly privileged status of this group makes them hard to relate to. But the story does psychologically pick away at the common threads of motherhood. And with its populist topic (lots of new moms out there, including Washington), it’s bound to press familiar hot buttons and unnerve many readers.
At least the storytelling is authentic — the author is a Brooklyn mom herself. It will be interesting to see how this novel translates into a widely anticipated blockbuster film.
Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.
The Perfect Mother
By: Aimee Molloy.
Publisher: Harper, 317 pages, $27.99.