Friends & Mothers.
Look! Australia has written another book! Several weeks ago, I posited the most controversial theory* that Australia has has only written one book**. In what can only be construed as a defensive move, Australia promptly responded to the criticism by unleashing a second book on the world, Louise Limerick's debut novel, the hideously titled Friends & Mothers.
I can't lay the blame for the title on Australia, however. This gaffe is all America's fault, I just know it. The book was first published in 2003 by Pan MacMillan as Dying for Cake, which is not only a better and more interesting title in general, but more appropriate for the novel. The cover is better, too:
But you know America and its views on woman readers. If you don't beat us over the head with the Obvious Stick, we won't realize it's a ladybook. There has to be some sort of reference to motherhood in the title, and the cover has to have a stroller on it or a baby or a pacifier or some shit. Unless it's a cover designed by my girl Olga Grlic, book jacket designer Top Dog, and then you have a book that looks worth reading.
And don't even get me started on legs and feet.
But the butterfly cover isn't as bad as all that. Designed by Cara Petrus, the trapped butterfly in the Mason jar is a decent enough analogy for the women in the novel, all of whom are struggling for their own particular brand of freedom.
In Brisbane, Australia, a tightly knit mother's group meets every morning at a coffee shop to connect with each other and fill the long hours that make up a young mother's day. At the novel's opening, the group is rocked by the complete psychotic break of one of their own. Evelyn, mother of five-year-old William and four-week-old Amy, is found having a meltdown in a nearby shopping mall. Social Services picks up William from school and tracks down her husband, Steve, but tiny Amy is nowhere to be found. While Evelyn sits in a nearly catatonic state in a psychiatric facility, the remaining women continue to meet, but the group is now taken over by the growing fear and suspicion that Evelyn, while deeply submerged in post-partum psychosis, is responsible for Amy's disappearance.
While the group struggles with the awful possibility that their beloved friend may have killed her child, they also struggle alone to recapture the individuality they sacrificed at the altar of motherhood. Clare fled an unstable career as a painter to become a teacher, and then fled her teaching career to become a mother, and now maybe possibly has come full circle. Susan squashes her insecurity and fears that she is a mother with no maternal instinct by micromanaging her family in order to chase doubt away. Wendy, the part-time nurse, is the vaguest of the five characters yet scores the most action, and Joanna is the overweight, sloppy Earth goddess with a maternal instinct on hyperdrive and an obsession with cake that borders on creepy (Hence the Australian title.)
Maybe cake is an Australian cliché for female indulgence like chocolate is in the U.S., and that's why Limerick had her character fixate on it so strongly, but Joanna's obsession with it completely takes over, as obsessions always do, and stuffs the book full of naked midnight baking sessions, lustful yearnings for frosting, and lascivious drooling in front of coffee shop display counters. Joanna is a cake zombie, lurching through the book in a fog, moaning, "Caaaaaaake.....caaaaaaake," until even the missing baby Amy takes a backseat to it. Why so much cake? I have no idea.
I'd make fun of this cake fixation, except I'm afraid that would reduce my chances of Limerick coming over to my house and baking me one. And she's here in Chicago tomorrow on her book tour, so you know, it could happen. She looks so nice, too. It's possible she roams the Australian countryside at night, leaving a trail of exsanguinated cows and confused, frightened farmers in her wake, but she looks so friendly you'd never suspect a thing. In fact, she looks exactly like the kind of person who would bake you a cake even after you tweaked her book a little bit:
God, now cake has taken over the review, too.
Less time spent on cake could have been more time spent on exploring post-partum depression, which, when Limerick does tackle it, she knocks it out of the park. Limerick explores both the milder form of what used to be known as the "baby blues" with Clare, who got better with the help of antidepressants and Evelyn, who is so far down in despair that she shuts down completely. Limerick skillfully uses Evelyn and Clare to hit all the angles of how the illness can affect a new mother. As someone who struggled with moderate post-partum depression, I appreciated how well Limerick captured the mindset. Evelyn's belief that her children would be better off without her and how logical that theory seems to her when she is caught in depression's web (Limerick also uses spiders and spider webs to serve as an excellent metaphor for depression.) Clare, a sufferer to a lesser extent, fights her depression by overcompensating with her daughter Sophie, who as a result is, well, kind of an asshole.
Although the characters try desperately to keep their group intact, the problems keep mounting and no matter how hard the characters work at maintaining their friendship, it seems inevitable that it's destined to crumble away, like so many crumbs of cake on an empty plate.
*Controversial in the Books Are Pretty sense of the word; i.e., 15 people commented about my review, myself included.
**I'd forgotten about The Thorn Birds, so, two books really.
Friends & Mothers
by Louise Limerick
May, 2007 by St. Martin's Press
Friday, May 25, 2007
Friends & Mothers.