In "Mothers and Daughters," Minneapolis writer Rae Meadows has made a perfect book-club pick for Midwestern mommies, nestling it between the heft of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" and the breeze of chick schlock, with mama drama replacing manhunt.
In form, Meadows mimics Woolf's celebrated work with a focus on the secret and interior thoughts of multiple narrators -- here are three women through history, all generationally linked. In plot -- not Woolf's strong point, of course -- the commercial conventions of sellable fiction rule. A distant husband with an unreasonable demand, a hip friend to love and hate, a mysterious box at the door. These are tired conventions, though there's a clever play on chick lit and Woolf: A single gay man lives next door to the character who is reading "To the Lighthouse," and the character ruminates on the missed opportunity of having him as a friend.
For mothers, where you pin yourself on the cultural donkey of "motherhood" will inform which character you'll fall for: streetwise Violet trying to win the affections of an opium den-loving mother; dying Iris (Violet's daughter) trying to make sense of her life's choices; or newbie mom Samantha (Iris' daughter) trying to regain balance in her marriage, art and mothering.
Unlike Mrs. Ramsay, the empath mom in "To the Lighthouse" who "often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions," Meadows' women are overflowing with their own. For Violet, the child who asks her mother to put her on an orphan train, this gives us someone to root for, even as she later misses connections with her own daughter. For Iris, stripped of all things "woman" (children, breasts, husband, lover), this gives us a sense of what a mother's end-of-life feelings might be. Samantha, the pottery artist/wife who struggles to leave her baby for a few hours to return to her studio, gives us frivolous solipsism.
Probably we're supposed to find Samantha frivolous. Probably she's written as a reflection of Modern Mother ennui, and when butted up against the hefty choices of the other mothers in this book, we're to think, "Chin up, girls! We don't have it so rough!" But then you'd have to see a little of yourself in Samantha, and that's tough. Samantha's anxiety about leaving her baby is unremarkable. As a plot device, her "ticking clock" -- having to throw a pot in time to grease the wheel for her professor husband's tenure -- is unbelievable. Samantha's no slouch, she's made some hefty choices of her own (which I won't spoil here), but they don't really inform her behavior. More time is spent with her hand-wringing over 2 a.m. breast feedings or a prostitute at the grocery store than considering the life-and-death choices she's made.
Still, what mothers leave daughters is loud and proud in this book, and it will resonate here -- the book spans late-1900s life in Minnesota's farm country, contemporary university concerns in Madison, Wis., housewifery in 1950s Chicago and retirement in coastal Florida. For Midwestern mothers and daughters and book clubs looking to connect, it will prime conversations about your own choices, which may change your whole sense of self, or at least make you feel not so alone.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a writer in Minneapolis.