Friday, May 17, 2024

Book Review: The Mother Act

By Jami Denison

The average cost to raise a child to 18 in the United States has reached nearly $250,000. Add in college, maybe grad school, and that number can nearly double. The COVID pandemic highlighted the lousy daycare system in the U.S.; the pandemic may be over but the daycare teachers never returned. Women in heteronormative marriages report doing the vast majority of house and childcare, even when they work full time.  Republicans’ response to this crisis is to outlaw abortion, and now they’re coming for birth control. 

No wonder that birth rates have dropped to record lows, that 25 percent of Gen Zers have ruled out parenthood entirely. If having a baby means sucking up every spare dollar and extra minute, why would anyone agree to it?

In The Mother Act, novelist Heidi Reimer’s provocative debut, a woman who became famous for her show on the horrors of motherhood must confront the demons she gave her daughter.  This dual POV, time-hopping story is a masterpiece of character and theme, resonating with anyone who has been a parent or had one.

Sadie Jones always knew she never wanted to be a mother. Growing up in a rural, religious household, she witnessed her mother popping out baby after baby; as the oldest daughter, Sadie was expected to take care of them. Running away from home as a teenager, she found herself in New York City and became a guerilla actress, performing plays in open spaces and always questioning the patriarchy. 

The book doesn’t start with Sadie, however—her 24-year-old daughter Jude, also an actress, opens the action as she waits for Sadie before the opening of her mother’s latest show. Like The Mother Act, the one-woman show that made Sadie famous, Sadie’s current play is also based on Jude.  Will mother and daughter be able to reconcile, or will this play be the final nail in the coffin of their relationship?

Under a lesser-skilled hand, the character of Sadie could have been one note and shrill, a man-hating Feminazi. But Sadie loves Jude’s father, Damien, and her conflict between her art and her love is concrete and thoroughly explored. True, Sadie is a bit of a narcissist who has trouble understanding other people’s points-of-view. But as the book progresses and readers get to know Sadie at different ages, her choices become more understandable. It helps that she’s larger than life—passionate, expressive, the type of person who throws her entire being into her projects and performances. Who wouldn’t want to be around Sadie, have some of her light shining on them?

In contrast, Jude is a born introvert, only comfortable with her father and a few people from his traveling Shakespearean acting troop where she was raised. After briefly meeting the 24-year-old Jude, readers get to know her as a 13-year-old desperate to connect with the mother who abandoned her at two years old and has been an infrequent participant in her life since she was eight. Longing for her mother’s love, but rejecting Sadie’s self-absorbed attempts at parenting, Jude only feels confident when she’s performing a role in someone else’s play. 

The acting world is the spine of the book—Damien is a British Shakespeare actor who grew up in a family of acting royalty, and the novel is divided into acts, some of which are named for Shakespeare plays. An early chapter shows Sadie disgusted by Damien’s portrayal of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew; that she is drawn to him anyway foreshadows the couple’s later issues. Acting is the thread that connects Sadie to Jude; as much as she wants to deny their similarity, Sadie’s fame makes it easier for Jude to book roles and harder for her to disavow her mother. 

The specificity of the characters’ challenges—Sadie trying to find funding for her movie; Jude trying to befriend actors who see her as daddy’s princess—at times work against the universal themes of the book. But they work in creating Sadie and Jude as real people, not just stereotypes. As the book progresses and Sadie weighs her love for Damian and his desire for a child against her lifelong opposition to motherhood, she faces a dilemma more typical to men: Should I become a parent only because my spouse wants a child? 

While the daycare challenges of COVID made it more acceptable to admit that mothering is tough, and parenting isn’t for everyone, these types of raw stories are few and far between. Movies like The Lost Daughter and The Babadook show the work but also imply the kids’ neediness is unique to the specific child and justifies maternal disengagement. By the end of The Mother Act, I felt that Reimer was falling into the same trap. 

Motherhood is hard, and even the most selfless woman with the easiest baby in the world would chafe under its demands. There are no bathroom breaks, no sick days, and most importantly, no pay. The most important job in the world is the most thankless. While Sadie Jones is a fictional character, and a particularly opinionated one at that, her dilemma has become more common as childrearing becomes less and less affordable. Authors like Heidi Reimer perform an important service by shining a light on the soul-sucking challenges of motherhood. But writers alone can’t change anything. Only voters who prioritize the needs of women over the religious values of certain men can do that. Hopefully, in November, they will. 

Thanks to Dutton for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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