Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Book Review: Little Wonders

By Jami Deise

I’ve been a fan of PTA stories since I first heard the song “Harper Valley PTA.” And considering the song’s only a year younger than I am, these stories have staying power. The song even spawned a (1978) TV movie and (1981) series starring I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden.

PTA stories are perhaps even more popular today, but the focus is no longer on the sexual and drinking habits of folks who just happen to be parents to children who attend the same school. Nowadays, these stories are about what type of parents the characters are. Spoiler alert: No one is ever good enough, and the moms—they are almost always exclusively moms—are at war with each other, believing that tearing each other down will keep their own status high.

In Kate Rorick’s latest novel, the PTA in question supports the Needleton Academy for Potential Prodigies and Little Wonders, and the school is as over-the-top as its name. Set in a well-off suburb of Boston, parents are expected to devote their lives to their children and be perfect at all times. But perfection is a high bar to reach, and even tougher to grasp.

The novel kicks off when PTA president Quinn Barrett has a meltdown when her three-year-old son Hamilton refuses to wear the handmade Halloween costume she slaved over for weeks, in between working her full-time design job and planning all the Halloween events at Little Wonders. Her tantrum is recorded by new parent Daisy, an LA transplant who just doesn’t fit in with her blue hair and sleeves of tattoos. Daisy only shared the recording with two people; unfortunately, one of them gave it to a Hollywood starlet, and it went viral. Quinn is removed from her post with the PTA, put on the back burner at work, and given the cold shoulder by her superstar surgeon husband Stuart.
Daisy feels horrible. Unlike her cousin-in-law Shanna, who reveals in Quinn’s misery and quickly usurps her position as PTA president, Daisy actually feels bad for Quinn. She knows what it’s like to feel ostracized and judged. She gave up her LA life and job so she and her husband could move in with his grandfather and their daughter Carrie could grow up in a bucolic suburb. But Carrie seems to be losing her sense of self, just like Daisy is.

Written in third-person point-of-view between Quinn and Daisy, the book avoids the usual trap that writers working with this material often take: Making the Type-A queen bee PTA president a one-dimensional villain. Rather, Quinn’s quest for perfection is all too familiar to those of us who were told we could have it all, and when she loses it, readers’ hearts ache for her. Yes, she manages everything and sometimes orders people around because everyone wants these events but no one will do what it takes for them to be successful. People even need to be told where to put the chairs, for pete’s sake. Daisy is only trying to fit in, make friends, and make sure her daughter is happy. Even Shanna, who seems to be shaping up as the real villainess of the piece, is just as trapped by expectations as the other characters.

My son is now 26 (the same age I was when I had him), so I’m light-years beyond the helicopter mom crowd. But I’m still drawn in by these stories, and the questions they pose. As Generation X latch-key children, we were expected to come home to empty houses, do our homework, babysit our younger siblings and perhaps get dinner started. As parents, we are expected to work full-time at demanding yet fulfilling careers, create a home like Martha Stewart (who has a cameo or two in Little Wonders), and raise children who bring home straight As and excel in at least one sport and musical instrument. How the heck did this happen? With her perfect ending, Rorick implies that it’s not other women who are the problem, but the men who create these impossible standards, and then reap the rewards when women fail to meet them. If women took some of that energy they use in being perfect and use it instead to try to change the system, who knows what we might be capable of.

Thanks to William Morrow for the book in exchange for an honest review. Little Wonders can be purchased here.

Also by Kate Rorick:

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