Janey knows she should be trying to put her academic career on the map, but how? She'll more readily poke fun at than engage in yet another overly dry and theoretical conference. And her husband and their friends simply encourage her off the serious academic path, providing anarchic ideas from Foucault-in-snowsuits to erotic poetry addressed to the harmonium collecting dust in the music department. A Large Harmonium is a sharply comical year-in-the-gloriously-unruly- life story. We follow Janey as she negotiates motherhood (“Little Max is a Roald Dahl story, I decide”); career (“the whole enterprise starts to resemble a lion-taming act without the lions”); frightful in-laws (“At breakfast, the two of them are serene and fit-looking. I never can see how people look like that in the morning”); and which literary hero her husband Hector most resembles (“Rochester! Why should I be Rochester? He's a bastard. And he has to be blinded and lose an arm or something before he can be tamed.”) Along the way, she relies on Hector, boy-wonder babysitter Rene, and even crazy unreliable friend Jam. And on Jake, the understanding minister who helps her pick her way through it all.
In Sue Sorensen’s novel A Large Harmonium, the reader is privy to a year of Janey Erlickson’s life as an English literature professor, wife, and mother. Janey must plot a route through her anxieties about the advancement of her academic career, her relationship with her husband Hector (and her jealously of the advanced state of his own academic career as well as his relationship with his teaching assistant Chantal), and her connection to her son Max (as she deals with feelings of culpability for not spending enough time with him as she questions her role as a mother). Sorensen decidedly depicts Janey’s struggles as culminating in moments where she feels most inadequate as a mother. Such a moment is exemplified when Janey is forced to leave a performance by her husband’s university choir because Max has begun to scratch her face and kick her, and she bitterly recalls the hours spent ". . . singing to a child who . . . was not worthy of any of the sweet sentiments [she] expended upon him." Although Hector is at times a less-than-serious Father, particularly in the company of his longtime friend Jam, the focus of Sorenson’s novel is not on the Erlickson’s family life, but on Janey’s intimate perceptions of what an academic, a wife, and a mother should be. The culmination of these societal expectations is best illustrated in a scene where Janey attends a Tupperware party at a neighbor’s house. Comparing herself to the other neighborhood mothers makes Janey view her degree as a useless and tacky display hung around her neck. "I took a course in Latin once" she muses, "but can I do origami or organize a successful party for sixteen rugrats?"