There are four different parent/child dichotomies – mother/son, father/son, father/daughter, and mother/daughter – and of the four, the mother/daughter relationship seems to be the one offering the most drama. Perhaps it’s because the mother, almost always the primary parent, naturally sees more of herself in her daughter. She expects more similarities and feels rejected by differences. Whereas the father/daughter relationship is most pronounced in its absence, mothers are criticized for caring too much.
In Shout Her Lovely Name, a collection of short stories by Natalie Serber, the mother/daughter relationship is paramount, even when it’s the backdrop of the action. The majority of the stories are about Ruby, who became pregnant in college in the 1960s and chose to raise her daughter Nora alone at a time when most women either had a shotgun wedding or gave up the child for adoption. Serber drops in on these two characters several times as the years pass – in the first, college freshman Ruby gets drunk with her father and sees her mother in a new, harsher light; the last shows Nora as a college student, living with an older man and cheating on him with a boy her age. The stories in between raise the question of whether biology is destiny, or is nurture more important than nature? A vulnerable child, eager for attention, Nora nonetheless recognizes that her mother’s parade of boyfriends – especially the married ones – will not result in a happy ending for either of them. The stories are written in first and third person points of view, with the writer utilizing different authorial voices at different times in Nora’s life.
Ostensibly a collection of short stories, the pieces are so interwoven it is impossible not to continue to the next. Ruby and Nora are exquisitely drawn, and Nora, especially – a blameless victim for her parents’ mistakes – is a character worth rooting for. Even as the reader follows her story, though, one cannot help but wonder if a happier path could have been hers, had Ruby listened to her boyfriend’s pleas and given the baby up for adoption.
Serber’s final story does not feature Ruby and Nora – although Nora may be the girl working at the bakery – but stars a middle-aged woman who questions her decision to stay at home with her now-teenaged children. Despite her rock-solid marriage and her career sacrifice, Cassie’s daughter Edith is in full-out rebellion mode, blue hair and all. Perhaps Serber is saying that no mother – married, single, working, or stay-at-home – knows the secret to raising problem-free daughters. It’s a depressing message delivered in a mesmerizing manner.
Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the book in exchange for an honest review.
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