Reviewed by Rima Walker
Ms Oates has done it again. If you are a fan of hers, don’t miss this one. And if you’ve never read her, try it if the universal themes of mother/daughter relationships interest you. Master of many genres, from Gothic fantasy to essays on boxing and artists to realistic, hard-hitting views of the lives Americans lead on the surface as opposed to their inner selves, she once again relates the story of a family, ordinary on the surface, complex beneath it. Gwen, nicknamed “Feather,” is a widowed housewife in her 50s, the quintessential good wife, mother and friend, a woman of conventional morality. The descriptions of her surroundings, her community and church involvements, her do-gooding, her competence in the kitchen where she bakes the most wonderful breads, sound very much like the woman-in-the-apron of the fifties: middle class, domestic, unliberated, cheerful and satisfied with her life, although she occasionally drops hints of her dissatisfaction barely noticed by her two daughters, Nikki and Clare.
While Clare seems to be the apple that didn’t fall far from the tree in her own more opulent, seemingly happy marriage and motherhood, Nikki, the 39-year-old narrator of this tale, a journalist with a small town paper, is anything but a clone of Gwen. She is sexually liberated, having an affair with a married man despite the disapproval of both mother and sister, wears punk clothes and make-up, and doesn’t seem to want much to do with her mother, “punishing her” often by not calling: “I don’t need her love. Not me.”
After having read “The Diary of Anne Frank” as a 14-year-old, Nikki felt that “some people are evil” and, although her mother murmurs some agreement, it is clear that Gwen really doesn’t agree. This naiveté or denial of human nature what leads to Gwen’s violent death, stabbed multiple times by a man she hires to do work for her and unsuspectingly invites into her car and drives to her home. So is this a cautionary tale–don’t trust anyone–or a murder mystery? Not really a murder mystery, because the killer is quickly caught. The mystery lies in Gwen herself, the mom who has gone missing and is then missed by Nikki who didn’t “need her love.” As the story unfolds, Nikki finds out the things she missed about her mother, things she never had an inkling of, things that change her way of thinking about her father, her relatives, her goals, her relationships with her sister, lover, and friends. But mostly about her mother.
After the funeral, Clare invites everyone to the usual funeral luncheon from which Nikki flees, unable to bear Clare’s house, the neighbors, her relatives, thus incurring Clare’s displeasure. She asks herself, “Without Mom and Dad, what were Clare and I to each other, really?” And she recalls how they fought, even as children. But she and Clare must get the house ready to sell, arguing back and forth, making up, and, in an emotional outburst, Clare tells Nikki that she doesn’t love Rob and that she married him because her mother wanted her to be settled with a good husband and children instead of going off to college and having a career. Clare admits to the guilt that many people feel at one time or another in their lives, visited upon them by their mothers, and so she chose what her mother wanted for her.
Nikki, who had discovered her mother’s bloody body on the garage floor and remembers that Gwen had looked at her before she died, didn’t want to be in the house at all among her mother’s things. She wanted no memories: “I abandon my mother to strangers.” But she decides to move in temporarily to get things in order. When she does, Clare calls her a squatter and doesn’t come to help. Meanwhile her relationship with her older lover, Wally, teeters back and forth in her mind. She loves him but holds him at arm’s distance. She hates the detective, Ross Strabane, who wants to help her through the time it will take to have the trial. She flirts with Rob who appears drunk one night after Clare has left him, and allows him to kiss her. She unpacks much of what Clare packed and tries to sort out photos and remembrances of her mother. She starts baking bread from her mother’s recipes. She wishes she knew more about her grandparents and is sorry that she never asked. She’s hurt that her sister won’t talk to her.
At one point, Nikki says, “Grief is like one of those roller towels in public lavatories. Shared with too many people, it gets soiled and worn out.” But she immerses herself completely in her mother’s persona, not going to work much, and she comes to feel that she must do the things her mother would have done. She goes to see neighbors, friends and family, accepting their concern for her, their love for Gwen, the guilt they express because they weren’t there to prevent Gwen’s death; and she bakes and brings them the breads her mother used to bring them. But, through these visits with people she doesn’t care for or about, Nikki learns different aspects of the truth of her mother’s life, her desires, her relationship with a boy she loved before she married Jon, how she really felt about her happy middle class life and her husband’s wealthy family who felt he married beneath him. Her father’s formidable sister Tabitha talks about Gwen’s marriage to Jon, saying they were not a “natural” couple, meaning that they were incompatible and that Gwen was going to leave Jon. But “where could she go “on her own?” The ex-cheerleader would not be able to make her way without a husband.
More and more, as Nikki visits friends and family, she fills in the sometimes heartbreaking and shocking missing pieces of the puzzle that was Gwen. She learns the heights and depths of Gwen’s life, and her own feelings and relationships change as she visits and revisits Gwen through the revelations of others and the mementos Gwen has left behind. Nikki gets to know what she missed about the woman who dwelled inside the middle class housewife, but as a cousin tells her, “Missing your mom can be a place to hide. . . .After awhile it’s time to come back out.” And so she does. How and why are the culminations of this beautifully written and very honest novel. ~