The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

“Yes, of course. It is always him they want to know about—the father, not the other mother.”

The Other Mother is an affecting and nuanced multigenerational tale unearthing long-buried family histories. The author’s interrogation of motherhood challenges the heteronormative archetype of the nuclear family, as she focuses on the experiences, choices, and parenting of single-women and same-gender couples. Throughout the course of the novel, readers will witness how parental love is not dictated by blood and the complexities that arise from that. Within these pages, motherhood is a multivalent term, one that changes from mother to mother. The two mothers that are at the chore of the story are flawed and imperfect individuals, who make mistakes believing that they are doing what’s best for their child. The author however is never not sympathetic towards them, nor does she condone their behaviour, allowing instead her other characters within her narrative, and readers as well, to reach their own conclusion about some of their choices. We are made to understand their states of mind, the events leading to them making those choices or the circumstances that aggravated certain ‘bad’ habits. The ‘democratic’ structure of the novel allows for all of the people connected to Jenry Castillo to be given a perspective, to give their side of the story and the rift between his two families, the Pattersons’ and the Castillos’.

“What Jenry does know is that he doesn’t belong here, which is how he’s felt about almost every place he’s been. Call it the mark of illegitimacy. But somehow this campus feels different. He’s come here to find something; more specifically, to find someone, which alone gives his presence a purpose. He has come to find his father.”

The narrative opens with Jenry starting his 1st year at Brown University after earning a music scholarship. Jenry was raised by his mother, Marisa, a nurse. While thanks to his grandparents he feels a connection to his Cuban heritage, neither they nor Marisa can fully understand his experiences as the only Black kid in his neighbourhood or fill the absence of his father, Jasper, who died when he was two. He has learnt that his paternal grandfather, Winston Patterson, is none other than a renowned professor of African American history at Brown, so once on campus Jenry sets out to find him, wanting to know more about the kind of person Jasper was. When he does speak to Winston, the encounter is far from the bittersweet reunion between two estranged family members. Winston seems not particularly interested or surprised by his estranged grandchild’s existence, and is unwilling to reveal more about Jasper. In fact, he asks why Jenry is so focused on Jasper when it was his sister, Juliet, who was involved with Marisa. Upon learning this Jenry is shocked and confused, angry at Marisa for having hidden the truth from him, and unsure what it even means that at one point in his life he had two mothers. The following sections, focusing on Marisa, Juliet, Jasper, Winston, and Victor, Jenry’s maternal grandfather, give us a retrospective of what occurred between Marisa and Juliet, their love story and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. We know from the start that Marisa took Jenry away from Juliet without any warning, leaving her with no way of contacting them. Since then Juliet has struggled with addiction and has only in recent years been able to find a stable relationship and job. Her career as a musician seems to have gone astray soon after Marisa left, leaving Juliet bereft and alone. And what role did Winston and Victor play in their daughters’ stories? Both men disapproved of their relationship and their ‘unconventional’ family, but, did they eventually try to do what’s right by them and Jenry?
I really appreciated the uneasy questions this narrative raises in terms of doing right by others and yourself. If you do something terrible (whether it is taking them away from a parent, pressuring them academically, or forcing them to deny who they are) but you have convinced yourself it is the best thing for your child, can you and should you be forgiven?
The narrative shows the many ways in which parents hurt their children out of ‘love’ or because they are unable to accept them and their choices, without exonerating them or villainizing them. Other characters may blame them but thanks to the book’s structure we can’t really favour one perspective over another. If anything, the author is able to show the justifications and fabrications some of the characters make in order to justify to themselves, and others, their actions. I appreciated how imperfect and messy the characters were and the different forms of love we see in this story. The author captures the longing, heartache, and regret experienced by her characters in a melodious prose.

“The loss of him fills her body, courses through her veins. And now, as her memories replay over and over, she can’t help but feel it all—the sadness, the loss, the love she had and perhaps still has for him—flowing into her limbs, making her skin twitch, her fingers ache, till it spills from her eyes as tears.”

The uneasy character dynamics that are at play within the story were deeply compelling and enabled the author to incorporate larger discussions on gender, sexuality, race, class, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Additionally, grief underlines much of the narrative. It may be grief at the death of a loved one (Jasper) or grief resulting from physical and emotional separation (Jenry being taken away from Juliet, the unbridgeable rift between Marisa and her mother, the distance between Juliet and Winston and eventually Jenry and Marisa). I loved much of the story and found myself particularly moved by Juliet’s portion. The author beautifully articulates her sorrow, without romanticizing her struggles or painful experiences. Initially, I found myself also feeling sympathetic towards Marisa, despite her choice to take Jenry away from Juliet. We see how unrequited love and rejection can eventually alienate you from the ‘object’ of your desire. But then in the latter portion of the book, any affection I held for Marisa perished when she behaves in a really crappy and unfair way to her son. Jenry, upon learning that she had lied to him for years, is obviously angry and upset. She is initially shown to be desperate to make amends, and I really felt for her especially given what she is going through. But then when she eventually reaches Jenry she tries to force him into forgiving her by threatening to make him leave Brown, saying that this place had clearly ‘changed’ him and he’s clearly not ready or something…and cristo dio. Wtf?! What a fcking stronza. Really. When she said that sht and the narrative glosses over it I just could not move past it. It infuriated me beyond measure and soured the remainder of my reading experience. Additionally, there was a predictable soap-opera reveal that was hinted at earlier on that just made me roll my eyes. The ending sequence was tonally a lot different from the narrative so far and struck me as mawkish and really jarring.

But hey ho, I did love most of the book so I would still recommend it to others. If you are a fan of multigenerational sagas, such as the ones penned by Brit Bennett, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or authors such as Hala Alyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Danielle Evans, and Francesca Ekwuyasi, you should definitely not miss The Other Mother.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette

“We were fixed to one another, like parts of some strange, asymmetrical body: Frances was the mouth; Mary Lucille, the heart; Therese, the legs. And I, Agatha, was the eyes.”

Agatha of Little Neon is a gem of a novel. Claire Luchette’s prose is a delight to read, its deceptive simplicity bringing to mind authors such as Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett. From the very first pages, I was taken by Agatha’s thoughtful introspections—on her sisters, the people around her, her new community, the church—and her quiet wit.
Not only does Luchette demonstrate huge insight into human nature but I was always aware of how much empathy she had towards the people she’s writing of, regardless of who they are. While I was reading Agatha’s story it was clear to me that Luchette cared deeply about her characters, and she showcases both tenderness towards and understanding of her characters ( their struggles, desires, ‘flaws’, regrets).

“No one could understand why I hated talking, why it was so much work to come up with something to say. It was even more work to make it true or funny or smart. And then when you’d come up with it, you had to say it, and live with having said it.”

Agatha’s voice drew me in, so much so, that it seemed almost to me that I had been transported alongside her to Little Neon. After their parish experiences, some financial setbacks Agatha and her three sisters are relocated to Woonsocket where they will be staying at a halfway home, ‘Little Neon’. Over the previous 9 years the four sisters have led a symbiotic existence but once in Woonsocket Agatha finds herself growing apart from them. While her sisters stay at Little Neon, where they are meant to watch over its residents, Agatha teaches geometry at a local all-girl school. Here, for the first time in years, she is alone and unsupervised and this new independence forces her to reconsider who she is and what she wants. These realizations dawn on her slowly and over time, which made her ‘journey’ all the more authentic.
Agatha is a quiet and observant person who was drawn to the Church by her faith in God and by her desire to belong. For years her sisterhood with Frances, Therese, and Mary Lucille fulfilled her longing for connection but once she begins living at Little Neon she finds herself growing attached to its various residents in a way her sisters do not.

“How horrible, how merciful, the ways we are, each of us, oblivious to so much of the hurt in the world.”

Much of the narrative focuses on seemingly mundane, everyday moments. Meals, chores, trips to the local shops, car journeys. Yet, many of these scenes carry a surprising weight. These ‘small’ moments are given significance, Agatha, and by extension, us, may come to know someone else better or she finds her mind drifting to her past, her faith, her sisters.
Throughout the course of Agatha’s story, Luchette shows, without telling, the many ways in which the Church disempowers, exploits, and silences its women. Luchette’s commentary on the Church and its hierarchies and inner workings never struck me as didactic. Agatha’s disapproval of the Church does not result in loss of faith, something that I truly appreciated.
Luchette’s meditations on Christianity, sisterhood, loneliness, longing, belonging were truly illuminating. The author’s prose is graceful without falling into sentimentalism. In fact, some of the imagery within the story is quite stark and much of the narrative is permeated by a gentle but felt melancholy. This made those moments of connection and contentment all the more heartfelt and special.
There was a sense of sadness too, one that often resulted in many bittersweet moments. And, this particular line broke my heart as it reminded me of Jude from A Little Life: “I don’t think I have the constitution for it. For being alive.”

Agatha of Little Neon is an exquisite debut novel. The writing is beautiful, the characters compelling, the narrative moving. While it won’t appeal to those who are interested in plot-driven stories, readers who are seeking rewarding character arcs and/or thematically rich narratives should definitely consider picking this up.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★½

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ps: illustration from NYT