Andrea McPherson: Bad Mothers and Wives
Andrea MacPherson's new novel, What We Once Believed, takes place smack dab in the middle of feminism's second wave, during which ideas about wives and mothers were turned on their heads—it's called progress. But what MacPherson shows in her novel is that progress is complicated, and that sociological changes have surprising and unexpected implications for individual lives. The novel focuses on the experiences of 11-year-old Maybe during the summer of 1971 when the world is changing...and so is everything.
In this list, MacPherson recommends great reads showcasing women who dare to defy society's expectations for them—for better or for worse.
I have always been fairly obsessed with bad mothers, and by default, bad wives. Our perspectives and expectations of these roles are so precise, so narrowly defined, that any aberration fills us with shock. Perhaps my interest in “bad mothers” comes from a story my grandfather told me, when I was quite young, about his mother abandoning her children and husband. The detail that stuck with me? She made him, her crying 10-year-old son, drag her trunk across town to the train station. So, my interest in bad mothers, and bad wives, started young.
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie McDonald
This novel left me breathless when I first read it. It was sprawling, Gothic, and included every tragedy imaginable, including a chorus of bad wives and mothers. Materia Mahmoud marries her husband, James, when she is thirteen, is secretive and silent with her daughters, and then commits suicide, leaving them with an unstable father. By all definitions, she is the epitome of a bad mother. But I felt for Materia, deeply and irrationally. This novel reminded me that the best characters, the most affecting characters, are messy, and flawed, and incredibly realistic.
The Conjoined, by Jen Sookfong Lee
What is worse than killing two foster children, then burying them in a deep freeze? Not much! This is the premise of Lee’s fine third novel, inspired by a (horrifying) true story in a newspaper. Jessica finds the bodies in the freezer after her mother’s death, and then must piece together how her much-adored mother could commit such a violent act. Through precise, shifting narratives, I was able to understand Donna’s tragic dichotomy of loving mother, and ultimately vicious foster mother. This novel made me reconsider the ways in which we fail the most vulnerable, children.
The Break, by Katherena Vermette
I gasped when reading this novel. Out loud. Maybe more than once. Vermette’s first novel had a visceral effect on me. It opens with a violent crime, but then goes on to explore the reverberations though intergenerational Metis-Anishnaabe women from Winnipeg's North End. They make mistakes, they falter, they have deep regrets, they become bad mothers and wives; but ultimately, they find ways in which to redeem themselves, and heal one another.
On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, by Cordelia Strube
Harriet is 11, and her life is nothing but chaos. Her parents have divorced, and she lives with her mother and disabled brother, Irwin. Her mother showers Irwin with love and attention, and essentially abandons Harriet, who is saving money in order to move to the shore of her favourite lake. Sound familiar? It’s not. Harriet is a complicated, vital characterin spite ofher mother, upending all my expectations for the potentially clichéd trope of the bad mother.
Leaving Now, by Arleen Paré
What is the ultimate crime a mother (and wife) can commit? Leaving her family. This has long been the social taboo of motherhood (and wifedom), and Pare tackles this very taboo in her mosaic novel. I’ve never read a novel that so carefully examines conflicted motherhood, revealing the many layers, and consequences, of our choices. Oh, and add in a Gudrun, Hansel and Gretel’s mother, who appears to comfort the very uncertain young mother.
Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson
Oh, how I love Ellen McGinty. She is loud, abrasive, impulsive, and full of regret for so many of her choices. Reviews labelled Ellen as “unlikeable” (that maddening term that seems to only apply to female characters, but that is another discussion), but she is anything but. She is real. She is as vivid as any character I have ever read. Ellen alternately loves and can’t stand her children; she is loved and hated by her ex-husband, and her boyfriend. She makes reckless choices, fights with her friends, but somehow, still, is utterly compelling.
1996, by Sara Peters
Absent mothers, preoccupied mothers, ambivalent mothers, abusive mothers, puritanical mothers. It sounds bleak (and in places, it is!) but this poetry collection is also a wonder. I had to close the book, consider the precision of Peters’ language, her ability to somehow create terrible moments with grace. She is fearless in confronting cruelty and violence, but just when we think we can’t take any more, she uses humour to offer clarity and candour. This debut collection stayed with me long after I had read the final poem.
“The Children Stay," by Alice Munro
Okay, so technically, this isn’t a novel. But isn’t an Alice Munro story really a novel, anyhow? This story (ahem, short novel) is about Pauline, a young mother of two girls, who is on her yearly vacation with her husband, and his parents. Pauline is unhappy, or perhaps, unfulfilled, in a very relatable, everyday way. Her husband jokes too much. Her father-in-law is too abrasive. Her mother-in-law is too accommodating. And Pauline is trying to locate herself by acting in a play, and, consequently, having an affair with the director. In a surprising moment, Pauline decides to leave her family to go to Washington with her lover, permanently. There is a heartbreaking scene where Pauline’s husband tells her, “The children stay,” and she accepts this without protest. She does not fight for her children, even in later years, as we learn in the flash-forward at the end. Ultimately, she reveals to her children that she had only stayed with the director for a few short months, suggesting she has become the classic bad, selfish mother.
(“The Children Stay” can be found in The Love of a Good Woman, which features good mothers, bad mothers, happy mothers, depressed mothers, engaged mothers, resentful mothers, as any good collection should.)