Mother Mother by Annie MacManus: A capable debut full of raw truths

Novel about a working-class belfast family is honest, emotional and a bloody good read.

mother mother book review guardian

Annie MacManus displays real skill as a writer

Mother Mother

The most immediately likable thing about Mother Mother is that it doesn’t try to be what it’s not. By that, I mean that it’s entirely unpretentious. I read this novel directly after reading the latest instalment of Deborah Levy’s memoir-style trilogy, Real Estate. And after all that gilded, stylish language wrapped around a big pile of nothing much, Mother Mother was an absolute tonic.

The writing here is uncomplicated and unaffected, the dialogue realistic and the depth of feeling at times stunning. In spite of being Annie MacManus’s debut, we find an assured authorial voice; it’s all show-not-tell, yet without any of the usual exposed nails and joists of writing classes on display. This is a novel that does exactly what it’s supposed to, and does so with real skill.

No, it’s not revolutionary, it won’t stop all the clocks, but, again, I don’t think the author intended it to do so. (She being the Radio 1 DJ known widely as Annie Mac – a fact that made me nervous to review the book, fearing another instalment of the auld “Look, a celebrity has written a novel – buy now!” trend.)

Instead, MacManus proves a genuinely capable novelist, one especially talented at depicting the realities of a broken, working-class Belfast family, and their grim, shifting tides of love and despair. We’re presented with three generations of lost people, trying (and often failing) to make their lives work, in the face of the brutality of living in a harsh, sometimes violent environment. They’re isolated in their shared grief, at a loss as to how to feel, how to cope.

Small details, such as the mustard-coloured stains on the outside of a toilet bowl, the whiteheads clustered at the side of a teenager’s nose, the stale smell of alcohol on breath, seamlessly and elegantly immerse the reader in their world. Difficult topics such as addiction and consent are explored with understated grace, leaving us, not with didactic judgments (there is no hashtagable philosophising), but the raw, true realities of things as they are.

And, ultimately, I’m not sure what higher praise there could be for a traditional novel than to say it manages to convey things as they truly are (while still being a bloody good read, of course).


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by Sindiwe Magona ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 27, 1999

A black South African writer, now New York—based, debuts with a novel that, as it seeks to explain the real-life 1993 murder of young American Amy Biehl, is often more an angry indictment of apartheid (justified) and of whites in general (less justified). Biehl was an idealistic Fulbright Scholar who, while working on a democracy project, was dragged from her car in a black township and stabbed to death by a mob of young blacks. The Biehl family has been remarkably forgiving, though the youths were subsequently released. The narrative takes the form of an imaginary letter written to the young woman’s mother by Mandisa, the mother of one of the accused, 20-year-old Mxolisi. She attempts to elucidate why her gentle son became a killer, recalling her own childhood and the brutal relocation of her entire community to Guguletu, a segregated area in a barren place far from the city. At 15, she accidentally became pregnant—which, as much as apartheid, led to a hard life for both mother and son: Mandisa, forced to leave school, became a maid and reared Mxolisi alone. Eventually, bright Mxolisi also dropped out of school, in his case because Mandisa could no longer afford his textbooks. He was soon active in the “No Education Before Liberation” movement of the late 1980s, as black children left the classrooms for the streets to protest apartheid in increasingly violent ways. Popular and gifted, he became a leader of the gang that would turn murderous. The story, a heartfelt brief in support of a son and a lost generation, has a vehement, polemical tone. Whites are described as the “scourge ‘’ that must be removed; Mandisa tells Mrs. Biehl that “people like your daughter have no inborn sense of fear. They so believe in their goodness” that it “blinker(s) their perception.” The prose is also uneven, and the voice far too sophisticated for a narrator of supposedly limited education. A disappointing take on a vital, relevant subject.

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1999

ISBN: 0-8070-0948-2

Page Count: 210

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1999


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by Mark Z. Danielewski ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 6, 2000

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest ) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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by Sally Rooney ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 16, 2019

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends , in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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mother mother book review guardian

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Darren Aronofsky ’s “mother!” is one of the most audacious and flat-out bizarre movies that a major studio has released in years. The director has never shied away from controversial filmmaking, but this deep dive into metaphorical horror finds him working in a register that feels crazy even for the man who made “ The Fountain ” and “ Noah .” “mother!” is at times horrifying, at times riveting, at times baffling, and at times like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It both owes a debt to horror masters like Polanski and De Palma and is so distinctly a movie that no one else could make. At its core, it is a film about the male ego, the female instinct, and the most horrifying thing in the world: people who want more from you than you can possibly give.

“mother!” is a deceptively simple film in terms of set-up, taking place entirely at a remote home that was not-long-ago burned in a fire. Two people, named only Him ( Javier Bardem ) and Mother ( Jennifer Lawrence ), have been working to remodel the home, which belongs to him. He’s a once-famous writer, but has lost his desire to create. She’s clearly in charge of most of the decisions around the home, choosing colors to paint one of the still-decrepit rooms.

One night, there’s a knock on the door. As far as we can tell, these two people are miles from civilization—Aronofsky does a fabulous job of making the home feel dangerously remote—and it’s clear that she isn't expecting or wanting a visitor, but he jumps to answer it. The person identified only as Man ( Ed Harris ) enters with a story and the man of the house offers to let him stay the night. The next day, Woman ( Michelle Pfeiffer ) arrives. While Lawrence’s character is hesitant to allow these people into their home, Bardem’s seems willing and eventually even eager. Of course, it helps that Man reveals he’s really a big fan of his writing. There’s nothing like a little stroking of the male ego.

To say things get stranger from here would be a massive understatement. Without spoiling anything, a film that starts in one register—feeling almost like it could be a movie like “ Rosemary’s Baby ”—becomes something else entirely, breaking all rules of realism. To be fair, Aronofsky hints at this early. Mother puts her hand on the wall and we zoom into the house to see something that resembles a dying heart. There’s a blood spot on the floor that doesn’t seem quite right. There’s more to the world of this film than you can even imagine, and Aronofsky only gets more intensely metaphorical as the film proceeds to one of the most simply mindblowing climaxes in a very long time. In an already notable career, the peak insanity set piece of “mother!” may be Aronofsky’s most remarkable accomplishment to date.

As for what "mother!" is about, you should be warned that this is far from a traditional horror film. Aronofsky makes it clear from early on that he won’t be playing by the rules, and he uses that freedom to examine gender roles and the differences between artistic and literal creation. Bardem’s writer regularly proclaims that he is inspired by other people, but he’s more of a taker than anything else, someone who thrives on encouragement as much as he does empathy or emotion. Lawrence’s wife is always cleaning up after the people in her house, working to build a home instead of just a showcase for her husband’s career. Of course, it’s remarkably easy to read a bit of self-reflection into “mother!”—is Aronofsky really the one who ignores the safety of domesticity and privacy to create? People will write lengthy interpretations, some of which will contradict each other, and I think that’s a major part of what Aronofsky wants here—to work in a style that allows for various readings of the film and no easy answers. Those looking for a straight-up horror movie should definitely look elsewhere.

Which should not imply that “mother!” isn’t often terrifying. Working with his regular gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique , Aronofsky shoots the film with a stunning degree of close-up. We are on top of Lawrence and Bardem for most of the film, which not only amplifies the claustrophobia but allows Aronofsky and Libatique to play with a limited perspective. We stay close on Mother, and can barely tell what’s happening behind her or to the sides. The lack of establishing shots keeps us off the game when it comes to a typical horror experience. We often spend horror films looking for answers—Who's the killer? Who's going to die? Who's going to live? "mother!" changes the genre rules. It thrives on horror of confusion, which is the main currency of the film. It’s a visually striking film, although we shouldn’t expect anything less from Aronofsky.

The tight look of the film puts a lot of weight on Lawrence’s shoulders, and I’m not quite sure she can handle it. Her character is a tough one for any actress in the sense that she’s often as confused as we are, forced to respond to the increasing nightmare around her, and Lawrence doesn’t quite nail every beat. And when the film demands she turn up the terror in the final act, she just didn’t sell it for me. I’m not saying she’s bad here, but I’m also not convinced that there aren’t performers who could have done a great deal more with the role. More memorable, although this is also by virtue of the juiciness of her too-small role, is the fantastic Michelle Pfeiffer. She marches into a room like she owns it, and nearly walks away with every scene she’s in. It’s the part you’ve been wanting her to get for years, and I hope it leads to more high-profile work.

“mother!” is going to make people angry. It’s going to make people ecstatic. It’s that kind of film—a movie that feels like it was purposefully made to be divisive, and completely unapologetic and unrestrained in terms of its creator’s vision. Love it or hate it, and there will be many on both sides, it’s a film people will talk about, which is both exactly what Aronofsky wants, and what we should demand more of from our movies. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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mother! (2017)

Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.

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Jessamine Chan’s Explosive The School for Good Mothers Probes a Parent’s Worst Nightmare

Chan’s first novel forces the reader to contend with this uncomfortable question: If the state were to quantify what it means to be a good mother, would I pass the test?

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There was the morning I took the garbage out and didn’t rush back inside, instead enjoying a beat of quiet solitude while my 2-year-old son sat alone in the living room. There was the time I turned on the YouTube app, plopped him in front of the television, and stopped paying attention long enough for the algorithm to find a nightmarish CGI car crash simulator. There was the raised voice at the playground, the dinnertime bribery, the countless times I’ve sat at the kitchen table on my laptop while he asked, with a lisp so sweet it’s almost too on the nose, “Can you play with me, pleathe? ”

These are the moments that ran through my mind while reading Jessamine Chan’s excellent, provocative debut novel, The School for Good Mothers (the January Today show Book C lub pick, which is being made into a television series by Jessica Chastain’s production company). It forces the reader to contend with an uncomfortable question: If the state were to quantify what it means to be a good mother, would I pass the test? Frida Liu, our doomed protagonist, fails miserably.

Frida is a 39-year-old Chinese-American mother and writer, and when we meet her, the police are calling to tell her they have her 18-month-old daughter, Harriet, in their custody. It’s the end of a chain of things gone very wrong, from Harriet’s birth (a traumatic emergency C-section) to her husband leaving her for another woman (three months post-partum) to trying to manage a toddler as an unexpectedly single working mom, in a city she only moved to for her (now) ex. Who wouldn’t crack? But Frida has messed up in a big way: Functioning on little sleep and late on a deadline, she decides to leave Harriet home alone, happily strapped into a bouncer, while she runs out to get coffee. And then, since she’s out, she runs to the office to grab an important file. And then, while she’s there, why not quickly catch up on some work? When she gets the call from the officers, it’s two and a half hours since she left. Her neighbors heard Harriet crying. She swears she never meant to be out that long.

Harriet goes home with her father, Gust, and his soon-to-be second wife, Susanna, a white 28-year-old former dancer who seems to exude maternal instincts, or at least the traits that have become de rigueur in the American mommysphere. Frida spends months under surveillance in her own home, now set up with cameras, and during supervised visits with Harriet, but ultimately her judge isn’t convinced she’s learned her lesson. So Frida is sentenced to a year at a brand-new state-run facility that exists somewhere between school and prison. There, working with a robot girl the same age as Harriet, Frida will “demonstrate her capacity for genuine maternal feeling and attachment, hone her maternal instincts, show she can be trusted.” If she fails, her parental rights will be terminated. (Mothers and fathers are sent to separate facilities with separate curricula; unsurprisingly, the fathers’ programs are much more lenient.)

The School for Good Mothers

The School for Good Mothers

The school’s metrics for success are clinical and data-reliant, misguided attempts at pinpointing the mechanics of maternal love. Frida’s class works through units on “motherese” (“the delightful high-pitched patter that goes on all day between mother and child”), appropriate types and time lengths of hugs, getting the dolls to eat enough vegetables or fall asleep in a reasonable amount of time. The problem, of course, is that data ignores nuance. What a relief it would be if such an intangible, high-stakes concept like good parenting could be hacked, reduced to action items; but precision doesn’t guarantee results, for the mother or the child. It’s no surprise that the mothers are the only ones who see the inanity of the workshops, useless in the face of the real, impossible-to-predict world—the instructors don’t have children of their own.

There’s no such thing as passing these tests, either in the school or throughout the trials preceding it. While she’s home alone and under surveillance, Frida obsesses over how to appear appropriately remorseful, but everything she does is read with suspicion. Why doesn’t she cry? Where are her friends? Why is her house so clean? In her supervised visits with Harriet, Frida’s tears and affection are evidence of her “neediness,” eventually used in testimony against her. The prevailing wisdom for mothers is to trust your intuition. In theory, it’s an inclusive affirmation, but in function it’s a way to blame mothers when they inevitably get the unspoken rules wrong.

This is the through line of the book—the doomed pursuit of something that doesn’t really exist, this Platonic ideal of the good mother. The closest approximation is Susanna, whose crunchy, demonstrative, “toxin-free” love is utterly foreign to Frida, the hyper-successful daughter of Chinese immigrants who lived their love rather than displaying it. Frida has everything stacked against her, and she knows it, from as early as her first meeting with the social worker who skews everything about her into a liability: her career ambitions (she left her child to go to the office? ), her history of mental illness (is it true she’s on anti-depressants?), and especially her ethnicity. The social worker tells Frida her parents “sound withholding” when she describes the lack of demonstrative affection in her childhood, but she insists he can’t “judge them by American standards.” At the same time, he’s disappointed to hear Frida isn’t teaching Harriet to speak Mandarin, just as Susanna is surprised she isn’t stocking her home with ancient healing crystals. Frida is both too Chinese and not Chinese enough; there is no winning.

It’s tempting to slot The School for Good Mothers into sci-fi—robot children! state surveillance!—but as the book continues, and as it becomes clearer that success in the school is close to impossible, I couldn’t help wondering if those more explicitly dystopian details were even necessary. At times I found myself sidetracked by the logistics of the AI dolls, and their existence opened big questions about consciousness and humanity that linger. They function ultimately as tools of discomfort, which is where Chan really shines. In a book full of characters obsessed with the idea of who is and who isn’t a good mother, Chan is sure-footed in her ambivalence, never allowing the reader to get too comfortable in a clear answer. From the second sentence of the book and onward, Frida’s mistake is described in purposeful isolation, referred to as her “one very bad day.” “What happened last week, what I did, doesn’t represent…what kind of mother I am,” Frida says, and the truth of this defense is so plain it’s painful. If we’re looking for a moral, an easy and reasonable one would be that a mother is more than her worst mistake.

But two things can be true at once: A person is more than their worst mistake, and one bad mistake can reap irreversible damage. Chan smartly places Frida’s bad judgment just past relatability: Frida leaves her toddler home alone for two and a half hours. Indeed, Harriet could have died. Frida knows this, and we know this, but as we get to know Frida and inevitably empathize with her, the nagging fear shifts. The scariest thing about The School for Good Mothers isn’t that government overreach could allow the state to terminate parental rights based on one mistake; it’s that your worst mistake could turn out to be something you’d never think you were capable of. “This wasn’t abuse,” Frida tells her lawyer. “I’m not like those people.” She believes it, but are these distinctions meaningful? Frida assumes the judge will be lenient, will be able to see her error was a lapse in judgment rather than a character flaw, based on the data points Frida herself finds meaningful: She has no criminal record, no history of addiction; she has an Ivy League master’s degree and a 401(k). These are her biases, no better indicators of moral fortitude than another mother’s ability to get a toddler to stop screaming in the street.

What Frida finds in common with the other women at the school, despite demographic differences and infractions that run the gamut from coddling to beating, is their isolation and alienation—the stripping away of their power while also, always, being reminded that any failures are their fault. Frida’s agency was wrested from her in countless ways before her very bad day: She couldn’t block Susanna’s encroaching (and often borderline dangerous) child-rearing beliefs. The custody schedule was tailored around Gust’s job. She was pushed into an emergency C-section and then scrutinized for her recovery. “Maybe some people weren’t meant to claim their space,” Frida thinks. “She claimed it for two and a half hours and lost her baby.” It’s easy to bristle here at what seems willfully reductive. Leaving a baby unattended for multiple hours is more than “claiming space.” But the two are connected. If Frida had felt able to claim space elsewhere—for herself, for her job, for her opinions about raising Harriet—maybe she wouldn’t have fled. What if mothers in distress were supported instead of punished? What might functional, preventative care look like? These are the book’s biggest questions, the hardest and most important to answer.

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Matrescence by Lucy Jones review – the birth of a mother

A science writer charts the monumental impact of having children from every angle

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Motherhood changes a person. We all know this. Yet in so-called Weird countries (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) there is very little in the way of ritual to acknowledge this rite of passage, this fundamental transformation. How can this be, Lucy Jones asks, when it is “a transition that involves a whole spectrum of emotional and existential ruptures”?

Unlike adolescence, “matrescence” is scarcely marked. Instead, we are expected to get on with it, sublimate all our needs to our new baby, and weather this most fundamental of human shifts without making too much of a fuss. We don’t properly recognise “the psychological and physiological significance of becoming a mother: how it affects the brain, the endocrine system, cognition, immunity, the psyche, the microbiome, the sense of self”.

Jones’s book is an attempt to correct this. Billed as a radical new examination of how motherhood changes the mind and body, it’s a work that I’d expected would fit neatly into what publishers and booksellers call the “smart thinking” category of nonfiction. What I found instead was a boundary-pushing book that is altogether tricksier, more complex and creative, transcending even the “part-memoir, part-critical analysis” genre that has become such a commonplace format for female authors in recent years.

Jones is known primarily as a science and nature writer (her first book was about foxes and her most recent, Losing Eden, looked at the human need for wild spaces) and I’ll confess I sighed slightly when I waded through an opening section about slime mould, though no doubt this will reassure readers of her other work that Matrescence is not a complete departure. Subsequent chapters begin with similar passages, which, Jones writes, attempt to show that natural change is not always beautiful. Initially I felt they jarred with the body of the work, which follows Jones’s journey into motherhood and is divided according to a series of themes, including birth, the brain, sleep and society.

But as the book went on I found I enjoyed reading about vampire bats and aurora borealis and spiders that eat their own mothers, and found her desire to place matrescence within the context of a wider ecology, and her emphasis on “the psychic and corporeal reality of our interdependence and interconnectedness with other species”, admirable. I also respect her absolute refusal to pander to the “enjoy every minute” brigade. As she writes in the introduction, “my children (she has three, all born close together) have brought me joy, contentment, fulfilment, wonder, and delight in staggering abundance. But that’s just part of the story. This is the rest.”

There is a trap for any critic reviewing books about motherhood who is also a mother: the trap of “this is not how it was for me”. It’s one I almost fell into, at times, as Jones laid out her experience of the “major, traumatic life crisis” that saw her confronted with her own “fundamental lack of control”, battling with feelings of guilt and “internal badness”, and experiencing “the loneliest time of my adult life” (38% of new mothers spend more than eight hours alone each day). The cultural myths of motherhood hold strong, and at times I found myself craving more delight, particularly because Jones’s writing on this aspect of motherhood is some of the most beautiful and creative in the book. Describing how it has enabled her to re-experience the past, she conjures “the scrape of armbands removed from an arm, the lemon-pine smell of hedgerow leaves and shrubs at adult-knee height, the dried-out film of a dead snail … the warm smell of swimming pools, the scent of my mother’s navy mohair cardigan”. She is great, too, on the work of motherhood: a passage in which she details the subtle but significant labours of the morning routine feels almost modernist. I hope one day she writes a novel.

That is not this book, though, and even for mothers who found matrescence a smoother experience, there is much to be gleaned as Jones skilfully elucidates the monumental shifts it brings, from the foetal cells that remain in a mother’s body for decades to evidence that pregnancy and birth has a dramatic, long-term impact on the brain that may even be permanent. Indeed, the chapter on the maternal brain is especially fascinating and, more importantly, validating for those of us who feel society’s minimising of matrescence flies in the face of our experience of it. This feeling is neatly summarised by Jones when she writes: “The closest I had ever been to death, to birth, to growth, to the co-conscious, to rapture, to rupture – was, according to the world around me, boring.” To read these words feels affirming, even radicalising. I find myself inwardly cheering at one point when another mother describes how “insipid/idealistic portrayals of motherhood made me less interested in it as a young person. I thought it was boring when it’s one of the most extreme socio-political experiences I have ever been through.”

The politics of motherhood is a bubbling source of despair and fury that underpins this book. Like many women, Jones describes feeling “hoodwinked” by norms of motherhood, how amid the pain, trauma and guilt of being unable to breastfeed she began to detect a coercive force. “Faintly, I smelt smoke,” she writes. Feminism owes a great debt to the women who smell smoke, and societal assumptions about unmedicated birth, breastfeeding, and intensive mothering continue to harm women’s mental and physical health daily. You may well find yourself raging at the various health professionals depicted: the midwife who cries at one woman’s bedside because she so wanted her to breastfeed, the health visitor who tells Jones “baby needs mummy” when she has the temerity to ask if she can let the baby cry for 30 seconds before picking her up, to see if she self-settles. Yet there are glorious, moving glimpses of maternal solidarity here too: the woman who picks a book off the floor of a train and reads it to Jones’s screaming daughter, the older woman at the garden centre who kneels down to tie Jones’s shoes because her hands are full with babies.

If at times there is an uneasy tension in this book between the science, memoir, social commentary and flashes of creative writing, this is a testament to its ambition. Jones never becomes bogged down in the material, which is quite an achievement considering its scope. At times I even wanted more. Jones hints at her “conservative (childhood) home”, and I found myself wondering how our own mothers shape our experience of matrescence. But to go there is to ask a lot of a writer, and I don’t blame her for not doing so. Jones is a pioneer, and as such has left some ground unexplored. This book is a beginning, and a fine one at that.

• Matrescence by Lucy Jones is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at . Delivery charges may apply.






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Mother of the Bride review – Brooke Shields leads middling Netflix mush

More background fluff from the streamer, this time from Mean Girls director Mark Waters with a splashy Thailand location

D espite experience mostly insisting caution, certain markers still allow one to naively daydream that a new Netflix comedy might be worth more than a background half-watch while ironing. A big name, an experienced writer, a genuine studio-trained director, some substantive source material, anything to allow us to glide on the brief hope that we’re not in hammy, Hallmark-adjacent territory.

This thinking sometimes works – 2019’s Let It Snow was based on a solid YA novel, 2021’s Moxie had Amy Poehler in front of and behind the camera, this year’s Players benefited from the considerable charm of star Gina Rodriguez – but it too often makes precious little difference. For Mother’s Day in the US, the streamer has Mother of the Bride, a breezy comedy that arrives from director Mark Waters, whose indie days included The House of Yes and whose studio days included Mean Girls, Freaky Friday and Bad Santa 2, enough to give one a brief moment of optimism. But after the tudum has been and gone, it’s clear that we’re being spoon-fed more of the same unremarkable competence, sugar with no salt, calories with no nutrition.

The clue was less in who was behind the camera and more in who was behind the laptop, the script written by Robin Bernheim, a Hallmark and Lifetime alum whose Netflix work includes The Princess Switch movies. The writing is as pat and perfunctory as one would expect from such a résumé, rooted in sitcom cliche (hands on hips when angry – check), never able to sneak its way out of the easily expected.

The mother of the title is of the doting, borderline obsessive kind, fixated on her daughter’s future and terrified of what might happen if it doesn’t fall in line with what she’s planned out in her head. Mother Lana is played by Brooke Shields, extending her relationship with the streamer after leading a ho-hum Christmas movie back in 2021, and daughter Emma is the iCarly star Miranda Cosgrove.

When Emma announces her surprise engagement, Lana is horrified, but the full horror arrives when she heads to Phuket for the wedding and meets the father of the groom, her college ex Will (a mostly shirtless Benjamin Bratt), a guy who left her out of the blue never to return. Despite being an extremely accomplished career woman who manages an entire laboratory (this might be the first ever romcom to use the phrase “tumorigenic mechanisms”), she of course turns into a stuttering buffoon in front of both her ex and a handsome doctor, played by a mostly shirtless Chad Michael Murray, also at the resort (she really does say the perennial line “I’ve got underwear older than him”).

It’s partly an older-than-usual love triangle comedy, partly a mother-daughter story about an overly attached empty nester and partly a study of men keeping their abs into their 50s (Wilson Cruz as Bratt’s brother is also with a six-pack and without a shirt), a combination that should tick enough boxes for some. Shields and Bratt are at least pros relative to the material, which allows them to makes the most of Bernheim’s relentlessly trite dialogue, their potentially more poignant what-if dynamic often vaguely threatening to move us.

Cosgrove is a little trapped in her overemphatic Nickelodeon mode (a scene of her using a laptop will surely make meme-lovers happy), but she’s also lumped with the script’s eye-rolling attempt to stay relevant, playing an influencer whose sponcon wedding is being used as a way to boost followers. Lessons about family and forgiveness are ultimately far less persuasive than the scenery, the boost of an on-location shoot that might not quite rival 2022’s extremely adjacent Clooney/Roberts confection Ticket to Paradise (one set piece is litigiously similar), but it adds a gloss that’s otherwise missing from the point-and-shoot workmanship of it all.

It’s a slight cut above just how very bad these things can get , but not enough to edge it toward something that would deserve your full attention. So errand away, Mother of the Bride will be just fine playing in the background.

Mother of the Bride is out now on Netflix

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Home / Find a book / All My Mothers

All My Mothers

All My Mothers by Joanna Glen

By Joanna Glen

‘One of those rarest of books: so beautiful I almost couldn’t bear it, and so moving I was reading through tears’  STACEY HALLS

St Just Thursday Evening Reading Group 8th September 2022.

All my mothers. Joanna Glen.

Once again, most of the reading group very much enjoyed this book, and there were hardly any negative criticisms. We liked the writing style, and the clever way in which the accounts of the different mothers were teased out. It was interesting for the reader to match up the real-life mothers with the rainbow-book mothers of different colours and characteristics.

We thought the story evoked a very sad girl, lacking a real mother-figure at the opening, and soon with an absent father. She suffered with endometriosis and had no one to sympathise with her; and then she lost all her friends. Her adoption was hushed up and no one accorded her the respect of any discussion of the matter. But as the narrative continued, and despite everyone’s problems, the story became one of women supporting each other: Eva found a succession of ‘mothers’ with different qualities: the Spanish nun, her own birth mother (after initial difficulties), her friends, and finally Eva herself became a proxy mother to her friend’s child. Even Eva’s adoptive mother found a kind of happiness with Jean, her carer and then her lover, who provided her with the mothering that she needed.

The men in the tale were mostly unhelpful, with the exceptions of Nigel, whose character is endearing, and Eva’s eventual partner.

The setting of Cordoba was popular with readers, those having visited the city being especially complimentary. A colourful background and a great sense of place, were comments about this.

Complaints were that the book was perhaps a little too long; and that the one-sentence paragraphs became slightly annoying after a while. Also one reader considered the idea of Eva being the only child not to be able to produce a picture of herself as a baby, for a school project, was flawed and unlikely. We discussed this and considered it to be a dubious educational practice in any case.

This book was generally a popular one with the group – a beautiful and absorbing story, with an inspirational setting.


Eva’s friend is Bridget Blume, but the person she connects with is her friends Mother. Bridget’s mother is sensitive, loving, hugs where she sees a difference in her own life.

She seeks out her real mom.

This although is poignant and sad in places it balances out with some good uplifts.

A coming of age story seeped in emotions.

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Pamela Paul

Watch Out for the Better Mother

between two small white mugs that say world’s best mom is a much taller one that says world’s number on best most amazing mom.

By Pamela Paul

Opinion Columnist

Sometimes, particularly in a public parenting setting, I will play the Better Mother. This is the mother who stands attentively outside a music audition, serenely listening to the notes emanating from within. She realizes the parent next to her said “Haydn,” not “Biden.” When her child emerges, the Better Mother isn’t sprawled on the floor playing Spelling Bee but instead greets him with encouraging commentary on the second movement. Also, she has brought a snack.

The Better Mother understands the lacrosse match (game?), cheering at appropriate moments in ways that hearten rather than humiliate. She knows the coach and chats amiably with team parents about various maneuverings on the field, nimbly expanding the conversation to school committees and after-school events. She did not bring a book.

The Better Mother ensures her kids have dress shoes that aren’t two sizes too small. She bakes. She reads official emails from school and camp from beginning to end. She knows which teachers your kids are supposed to get and whom to email if they aren’t gotten. She always brings a water bottle.

She is not the mother who didn’t know there was a school concert and has to sneak in as the lights go down. She knows which side of the field her child is playing on and possibly which position. She never texts at a stoplight with her child in the car.

She is empathic but not overbearing, affectionate but not treacly, wise but not smug, concerned but not anxious. She is the mother who knows danger but never checks in on a child for the wrong reason.

The Better Mother is, by definition, a better mother than I am.

She can be a total stranger spotted at the museum or a familiar face at a birthday party. Either way, she is a natural star in the play for which you haven’t quite memorized your lines.

Most mothers — and fathers — probably have a personal vision of their own competition, depending on one’s skill set or lack thereof. For me, it depends on the context, my mood, the child in question and the spectrum of parental figures in the vicinity, even sometimes on which TV show I last watched or what book I’m reading.

For a period, I decided that a better mother than I was Mary-Kay Wilmers , a former editor of The London Review of Books, a woman I’ve never met but read about in “ Love, Nina ,” a memoir by Nina Stibbe, who served as a nanny to Wilmers’s two precocious sons. Wilmers surrounded her children with clever British eminences like the playwright and novelist Alan Bennett and the biographer Claire Tomalin, as well as the critic John Lahr. Raised among brilliance, her boys became sharp wits themselves, biting and slightly wicked in their humor.

As I didn’t have any storied literary figures lighting up my dinner table, I simply let loose all my own most caustic comments, the kinds of uncharitable thoughts you usually reserve for like-minded adults. Alas, without elegant British companions, I was merely encouraging a rude sarcasm. My error was highlighted in the presence of another Better Mother, my friend Robin, whose children looked strangers in the eye upon meeting, shook hands firmly and managed civilized niceties.

No one is suggesting you have to be the Better Mother — merely that you can play her in public at your discretion. When you’re surrounded by a bunch of slacker parents or all-out bad moms or you’ve had a busy week and need an extra boost, you can simply slip on the role, ideally in public, for a Sunday afternoon. Yes, I am saying you can fake it.

Mother’s Day brings forth the Better Mothers in droves, when they accept all due adulation. On such occasions, regardless of what kind of mother you are in reality, you can damn well play the part.

And who’s going to be the wiser? The ones we think of as Better Mothers could be big fakers themselves, women who shove unevenly microwaved Trader Joe’s items before their kids for dinner and call it a night. They could be the ones who post about their teenagers on TikTok or slap their toddlers in Target when an iPhone camera isn’t in the vicinity.

Or they could just be like most parents, occasionally too tired to read aloud, not hugely interested in seventh-grade algebra or simply not in the mood to play.

It is possible the Better Mothers are no better than the rest of us. Only our children know the truth.

Source photograph by Red Sky/Getty Images.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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An earlier version of this article misstated the nationality of John Lahr. He is American, not British.

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Pamela Paul is an Opinion columnist at The Times, writing about culture, politics, ideas and the way we live now.

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The making of a poet: Mother’s Boy, by Patrick Gale, reviewed

The intense, quasi-incestuous relationship between the poet charles causley and his overprotective mother is the subject of gale’s latest novel.

  • From magazine issue: 05 March 2022

mother mother book review guardian

Michael Arditti

mother mother book review guardian

Mother’s Boy

Patrick Gale

Tinder, pp. 4168, £20

Charles Causley was a poet’s poet. Both Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin considered him the finest candidate for the laureateship, which Hughes later won. Now Patrick Gale has made him a novelist’s poet in this richly engaging fictionalised account of his early life.

Mother’s Boy is bookended by two world wars: the first, in which Charles is born, and his father Charlie suffers the injuries that would lead to his premature death; the second, in which Charles, who had written schoolboy verse, ‘although poetry was not really his thing’, discovers his poetic voice while serving as a coder in the navy.

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mother mother book review guardian

The novel’s main subject is the intense, quasi-incestuous relationship between Charles and his mother Laura, a church-going laundress, who raises him singlehandedly. Charles is born after she instigates a bout of lovemaking with the exhausted Charlie on his brief return from the Front, because she believes a baby to be her due. The ‘flushes of pleasure’ she feels on nursing him are explicitly sexual and, as he grows, Charles replaces Charlie in her affections, which she knows to be ‘a terrible thing, almost a sin, damaging to both of them’.

Laura is fiercely protective of Charles, a bespectacled, bookish, bullied child. She senses that he is not like other boys and, while proud of his achievements, is a little afraid of him. She feels more at ease with Terry and Jerry, twin East End evacuees who are billeted on her. When she watches Charles entertaining them on leave, she ‘saw what a brilliant father he would make’ and is overcome with an inexplicable sadness.

Just as Laura is unable to articulate what sets him apart from his fellows, so Charles hides from it. When a school friend shocks him with a kiss, Charles considers it ‘a sin and against the law’. Navy life confirms his sexual identity as well as his poetic gift, but at the crucial moment he rejects Cushty, a sailor very much in the style of Quentin Crisp’s ‘great dark man’, who both saves his life and takes his virginity.

Gale, an adoptive Cornishman, brilliantly evokes Causley’s native county in the first part of the 20th century – the isolated village communities for whom neighbouring Devon is practically a foreign country and the changes brought about by the influx of strangers, not least America’s racially segregated GIs.

This deeply felt, elegantly written novel will be relished by admirers of both the author and his subject.

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A review of The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

mother mother book review guardian

The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper Counterpoint May 3, 2022, Hardcover, 432 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1640095045

The Other Mother– a multigenerational, multi-perspective narrative–is as poignant and nuanced as its structure is unique and transpicuous. A moving family drama organized into seven books with seven chapters each, the mix of points-of-view shatters the heteronormative, nuclear family, emphasizing the complexities and vulnerabilities of motherhood.

The book begins with The Son – Jenry Castillo: a Cuban-Black piano prodigy and freshman at Brown University on an essential quest for his biological father, Jasper Patterson. A premise not uncommon, but one that quickly turns to the other mother, title encapsulated in the novel’s driving force. Upon meeting his grandfather, Winston Patterson, a tenured History professor at Brown, Jenry learns that Jasper’s sister, Juliet , raised him as a young child with his mother, Marisa, her ex-partner.  

Confused and angry at his mother for having kept this secret, Jasper grapples with having two mothers. The following books provide retrospective accounts of what transpired between Marisa and Juliet; ultimately Juliet didn’t feel passionate about Marisa and chose to focus on her career as a touring pianist and composer. Feeling rejected, Marisa took Jenry back to Miami where her parents live for the next eighteen years, cutting Juliet off entirely. Juliet looks desperately for them, but her search peters out as her career takes off. In each account, characters are interwoven and connected.  

In Book 3: The Father, Jasper battles with AIDS but dies in a lake accident at the family cabin. Juliet falls into alcoholism and leaves Marisa. Winston, The Grandfather, hid from Juliet that he kept tabs on Jenry’s childhood through mementos and letters, as well as his financial support to Victor, The Other Grandfather, Marisa’s father, who hides his regular correspondence with Winston about Jenry from Marisa. With Winston’s support and presence (albeit from a distance), Jenry inevitably comes to Providence to study at the same university both his mothers did and to meet his “other family.” Hence all the lies, secrets, and betrayals unravel.  

Harper achieves characterization equally flawed and just. The story is laced with an overarching theme of doing what is “right” to protect someone, but later learning that the protection was merely self-preservation, deferring and avoiding the potential pain of losing that someone again. Harper delicately illustrates the variations of doing right by yourself and others out of “love” that sadly ends up hurting those involved. Choosing to leave your partner because you can’t love her the way she wants; keeping your child away from their other parent because you’re a package deal; hiding what you know from your daughter so she can beat her addiction and succeed at her talent; secretly corresponding with the man who can give your grandson a better future; never telling your son that his biological father isn’t whom he thinks. So many circumstances, so much at stake, so much risk in telling the truth, and yet when the truth comes, it sets everyone free.  

The narrative presents all sides–every truth and fabrication–creating imperfect characters and messy relationships. We love in different ways. What can feel like betrayal, Harper reveals: “ Relationships are complicated. People. Families. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. When you’re a child, you can’t see how much work it involves, just keeping everyone connected .”

Through compelling and complex character dynamics, Harper integrates larger themes on race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Successful men in their fields–from Winston’s and Victor’s perspectives–struggle being Black in America, and with the disillusionment of emigration, respectively. They try to reconcile their children to themselves, questioning lifestyles that severely defy theirs, or refusing to understand, either due to a generational gap or a cultural norm being breached. From Jasper’s, Juliet’s, and Marisa’s points-of-view, the struggles of being gay, the physical implications in Jasper’s situation, the inability to fully see oneself as an equal parent, the estrangement and rejection from family in which the riff between daughter and mother feels eternal.  

Grief underlines the narrative collectively. Whether because of separation, the death of a loved one, or an unfulfilled desire, grief allows the reader to sympathize greatly and deeply. Juliet’s sorrows and struggles are constant, causing her to give up her one true love: music. Her character arc is the most prevalent and responsive in that she learns to put family, love, and partnership first; it keeps her sober, married and faithful to her present partner, Noelle, and their future family with their adopted son, Jonah. Harper lyrically describes grief, loss, longing, regret, and guilt in an array of similes and metaphors, for example, “The guilt feels like a wool scarf knotted around his neck, one he will wear for the rest of his life.”  

The descriptive language–raw and visceral–in the sections that pertain to Juliet are the sharpest. Harper uses musical terms to define Juliet’s feelings and mental states. She conveys Juliet’s fears and desires about Jenry–the intensity, the real stakes now that he’s back in her life and how she’s desperate to not make the same mistakes.  

Juliet’s perspective drives the narrative, while other sections, although rich and beautifully detailed, distract from the main plot. Jasper’s account seemed a stand-alone section, pertaining less to the arc than defining his relationships. Yet the structure of the book would’ve been sacrificed (its seven-seven order) without the last three books: Winston’s, Victor’s, and The Other Son – Jonah’s. The history in these sections confused the facts around Jenry’s birth. They also made the rest of the story predictable. If much of the story had been told in the present, it would have allowed for more interesting conflicts between characters. By the time we get back to the present from historical sections, we have already forgotten what knowledge certain characters possess and their feelings towards certain events.  

The ending shifted tonally and didn’t involve or give credit to Marisa, suffering from cancer––or Victor, who played a big role in Jenry’s upbringing. It seemed to alienate them, closing Marisa’s arc with a scene of her discouraging Jenry from continuing at Brown since his first semester was difficult, and then resigning that her son will inevitably grow closer to Juliet because of their shared talent, and possibly her family. We only get the conclusion that Jenry still has a good relationship with his mother and her parents, Victor and Ines, because he is flying to Miami on Christmas Day in the last chapter.  

At the heart of this story are choice, belief, and freedom. What we choose directly or indirectly affects others, especially when that choice is about them. But what we believe has the power to eradicate whatever choice we made that resulted in something damaged or undesired. When Juliet finally believes that she is Jenry’s mother, she is freed from the guilt of her past and the eighteen years she lost. When Marisa sees Jenry play prolifically at the school’s Winter Contest, she believes that he has always been connected to Juliet, despite their long separation and that they don’t actually share blood. Even when the two mothers choose not to tell Jenry that Jasper is not his real father, it is a choice they once again make to protect him—but it’s Jenry’s belief that he is biologically connected to Juliet and Winston that allows him to thrive and to accept his life now. Winston’s belief that Jenry is his actual grandson helps lessen the grief of losing Jasper, as he feels there is still a part of him alive in Jenry.  

“ This whole thing is about belief,” Harper writes. “—not fact, not proof—and in that way it puts her and her father on the same side. She believes Jenry is her son, and her father believes he is Jasper’s son—it doesn’t matter that neither is correct in any technical issue. The belief is what matters, and what they do with it—the life they live as a result of it.”  

Harper’s novel will engage fans of generational sagas and family dramas where long-buried family histories and secrets are unearthed, and where past choices explicitly affect the present and future of others in a snowball effect. The novel excels at revealing motherhood—or parenting––truly: falling in love with a person you’ve helped to create, and, in doing so, loving yourself in ways you couldn’t imagine; knowing you will sacrifice absolutely everything for them.  

The Other Mother is a respectful, generous nod to same-gender couples, single parents, and adoptive parents. Family is not the people you simply inherit but the people you choose.  

About the reviewer: Julz Savard is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from Ateneo de Manila University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She works for a nonprofit as a Communications Manager while completing her first Young Adult novel. She has been published in Lunch Ticket, Chalk Magazine, and Meg Magazine.

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American Mother

Colum mccann , diane foley.

256 pages, Hardcover

Published March 5, 2024

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