Destination: NYC (19th Century), Madison Wisconsin, Florida
Book: Mothers and Daughters (2011) by Rea Meadows
(WIN a copy of this book when you leave a comment)
Destination: Austin Texas
Book: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough (2010) by Ruth Pennebaker
I realize it is a little late for you to be getting these books as Mother’s Day gifts (Yes it IS two days away), however there is never a bad time for giving a gift to Mom. Are you listening, kids?
It is a truth universally acknowledged (apologies to Jane Austen) that the most complex relationship on the face of the earth is that between mothers and daughters. The complexity deepens because each mother, of course, is also a daughter.
Therefore, in the novel Mothers and Daughters, Rae Meadows covers fascinating, if well trod ground. I read this new novel a couple of months after enjoying Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker, and realized they would make a nice pair of books to peruse as we ponder the subject of mothers.
Mothers and Daughters follows three generations (and baby makes four) of mother-daughter relationships. By far the most riveting one takes place in the late nineteenth century. We follow the drastically changing life of Violet from the streets of New York to the Midwest. Her single mother copes as best she can, living off the favors of men, but finally gives up her daughter in the hope that Violet will have a better life if adopted from the orphan train by a Midwest family.
The orphan trains actually did transport thousands of poor waifs from Eastern cities to midwest and western families, with very mixed results. An enormous amount of literature has been produced based on the orphan trains. You can find a list of books, as well as lots of history at the Orphan Train site linked above.
This part of the 3-generational history fascinated me. Meadows captures the street life of the scabby-kneed, scruffy children who live on the streets with their false bravado and survival skills, and the fear and confusion of the children who get aboard the train. But the novel is not just about this slice of history.
Violet’s grand daughter, Sam, the story’s main focus, lives the life of the intellectual class in Madison Wisconsin. Unlike her maternal line, Sam has the choice of whether to become a mother and after one disastrous attempt, is now doting on an infant daughter.
Sam and her mother Iris never grew particularly close, but Sam felt she knew her mother better when she went to stay with her in “God’s waiting room” in Florida where Iris had moved not long before her illness and death.
As readers we get to know the entire story of Sam’s grandmother Violet and most of Iris’ story, but the novel leaves Sam searching for clues–belatedly realizing that these women were complex people–not just mothers.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which I read on my netbook’s Kindle app, also treats three generations–Caroline (15), the mother Joanie (about to turn 50), and grandmother Ivy (in her seventies). But Mothers and Daughters is a walk in the park compared to the lives that Pennebaker has created. Pennebaker has a sharp eye for the way that people function–or dysfunction. She not only creates an amazingly accurate teenager, but captures Ivy’s frustration at being treated as irrelevant in old age. Ivy tries vainly to stay up to date by learning to use a computer, even while she clings to beliefs and habits that her daughter Joanie thinks are hopelessly outdated.
The various problems and personality differences would be bad enough if these three were living separately, but they are living under the same roof where they predictably get on each other’s nerves.
I am a regular reader of Pennebaker’s blog, The Geezer Sisters, where she amuses her many fans by slicing open her own emotions and reactions to life’s frustrations. Yes, amuses. The humor in the novel is subtler than the sardonic essays on her blog, but it is there in characters who act out in ways we have only fantasized about. But somehow as you are reading, the actions seem completely real and justifiable–if sometimes pretty funny. Later you may think–are these women ALL nuts? Yet she leaves the three women with hope for growth and self awareness and even some understanding of the others.
Thank goodness you (and I) are not expected to choose between these two books on a very similar theme. The writing style is different, the characters have markedly different backgrounds, but the novels have in common that irritating, hurtful, consoling, all-embracing relationship between mothers and daughters. So take your pick–New York to Wisconsin and Florida or Austin, Texas.
If you leave a comment during the week after this is published, you will be entered in a random drawing to win a copy of Mothers and Daughters. Sorry about the other book–as I said, I read it on my Kindle app. (Only U.S. residents, over 18 are eligible. Thanks.)
Mothers and Daughters was given to me by the publisher for review. I purchased Women on the Verge for my Kindle app. If you click on an Amazon link anywhere on this site and buy anything at all while you are shopping there, A Traveler’s Library earns a few pence. Thanks again.
Do you have a mother-daughter relationship that would make for a comic novel, or a Greek tragedy? And do you have a story about orphan trains?