The NYT review of The Mothers proffered that this was a story about obsession. That has the ring of truth to it. I think there is nothing that obsesses many women more than our children and/or our desire for children. I once said to a young woman who was considering having children and asked me how I felt about it: "Think of your most intense feeling for someone you love ... multiply it by 100 and you might get a sense of how a woman feels about her child." I still remember how her face registered that pronouncement with surprise ...
I broached this book with trepidation as it tackles the thorny and emotional issues of infertility and adoption in a fictional context - both areas that I have some unhappy experience with. The narrator's pain is so palpable to me that it almost dissuaded me from proceeding with this sensitive and intelligent examination of one couple's path to adopting a child.
When the novel begins, Jess and Ramon are on their way to North Carolina to attend a seminar on domestic adoption. They have already been ruled out for international adoption at a session they have recently attended. Jess has had cancer and even though she has successfully conquered it she is disqualified from applying to most countries as are gay couples and single women. They leave the international adoption meeting that Jess and Ramon attended for potential adoptive parents and Jess bursts into tears (as the reader nearly does as well). The feeling of hopelessness is so overwhelming.
So ... on to the possibility of a domestic adoption. Handsome, somewhat reticent Ramon who is half Spanish, half Italian (and whom Jess met in Italy during one of her sojourns there) is more reluctant to proceed with the adoption it appears. The possibilities in North Carolina sometimes appear no better ... one couple advises them that gay male couples are often considered more desirable by birth mothers as they pose no threat to the birth mother's role as "everyone wants to be the mother".
When the couple returns home, Jess is so dispirited that she responds with anger and hostility to her parents' innocent queries for information. There are so many variables ... will they adopt a child who is not white? From a mother with substance abuse issues? Who has serious health issues? Characteristically, I think, the adoptive father says no, the adoptive mother says maybe.
Jess is sometimes impossible - full of rage, hyper-sensitive, anxious, bullying with Ramon, insensitive.
Jess's rage about her situation is a toxic, messy rage that spills over into her relationship with Ramon, her parents, her friends who are also mothers ... rage against the adoption system which is a complex labyrinth, rage against one's friends who are already mothers, rage against one's husband who does not seem to be as passionate about the adoption as she is, her parents who appear insensitive at times ...
I understand it - the level of frustration, the sense of hopelessness, the anger, and the ugliest feeling of all: that you have failed as a woman because you cannot conceive. No rational explanation will assuage this feeling.
The title is apt ... it is not just about Jess' quest to be a mother, nor the birth mothers of the adopted children but many mothers - her friends who have become mothers, her own sometimes distant mother, her obstreperous Italian mother-in-law, Jess' pregnant sister Lucy, her substitute mother Claudine who cared for Jess and her sister Lucy as children, the prospective birth mothers, the phony birth mothers who cruelly deceive the desperate couple with false biographies and hope ...
Yes, there are many mothers and many ways to mother - a path that Jess soon learns she may follow.