- Panic at the Playground:Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki. Hogarth, 2017, 320 pp., $26 (hardcover).
The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger. BOA Editions Ltd., 2016, 96 pp., $16 (paper).
Good Bones by Maggie Smith. Tupelo Press, 2017, 99 pp., $17.95 (paper).
Protection Spell by Jennifer Givhan. University of Arkansas Press, 2017, 76 pp., $17.95 (paper).
Hard Child by Natalie Shapero. Copper Canyon Press, 2017, 96 pp., $16 (paper).
In a rally leading up to the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump stopped his speech to comment on an unruly member of the audience. "Don't worry about that baby. I love babies. I hear that baby crying, I like it. I like it! What a baby. What a beautiful baby." Minutes later he stopped again to say, "Actually, I was only kidding. You can get the baby out of here. … I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I'm speaking."
That moment, replayed on the Internet, felt emblematic of a certain cultural duplicity toward mothers. People love babies. They are precious, innocent, and beautiful. The women who bear them are vessels that carry the promise of the next generation. But often those women do the "wrong" things. They are irresponsible and undeserving. They don't raise their children properly. They may not have conceived them properly. The babies themselves are suspect by their association with these women. [End Page 178]
No wonder, then, that in recent writing we encounter mothers feeling anxious and paranoid. How are they to know which face of our culture they will meet—the face of doting love of all things maternal or the face of sneering contempt for women and their inconvenient babies? In the books considered below, motherhood feels tenuous, sometimes in literal terms because of infertility and loss of pregnancy but just as often because the world feels inhospitable at best and hostile at worst. Their fears have varied causes, but these mothers share a sense that some hidden malice may underlie ordinary life.
Woman No. 17
Edan Lepucki. Hogarth, 2017, 320 pp., $26
Edan Lepucki's Woman No. 17 is about mothers failing in a multitude of ways. The novel is narrated by two women, one of whom is a mother and both of whom have lived in the stormy weather created by their difficult mothers. Lepucki gives us these women in their own words and also through each other's eyes, a device that reveals how much they hide, even as they want to confide in each other.
One of the narrators, Lady Daniels, is looking for a nanny after having separated from the father of her two-year-old son, Devin. Lady also has an older son, Seth, from an ill-fated romance that essentially did in Lady's already fragile relationship with her overbearing, perfectionist mother. Alone in the posh L.A. home she acquired with her second husband, she tries to find a new profession by writing a memoir about her life with Seth, who has selective mutism. He can hear, write, and use sign language, but he has never spoken a word.
The other narrator, Esther, has recently graduated from college and reinvented herself as S. She applies for the nanny position, looking for a way to support herself using her child development major while secretly trying to make up for what she feels is her failure as an artist. S has committed herself to a kind of performance art piece in which she becomes her mother, the carefree, blunt, irresponsible, and alcoholic Katherine Mary. She pursues this project by swearing off makeup and flattering clothing, speaking as directly and artlessly as [End Page 179] she can, and, when she's not on duty watching Devin, drinking blackout quantities of vodka.
In their first interview, Lady and S enter into a kind of role reversal. The mother, who should be conducting the interview, allows the nanny to take the reins, espousing her theories about childcare and development. In answer, Lady jokes about keeping her toddler in a box and letting him play "coffin," until...