“You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.”
Lady Daniels needs many things in her life. She needs a break from her husband. She needs to finish her memoir. She needs a nanny. Karl has already moved out, and in order to finish the memoir, she needs the nanny to help watch Devon, her young son.
Unsure of what she is looking for, her interview with S is as unexpected as the young woman herself. Lady is drawn to S and hires her.
S, or Esther, is on her own mission to become the artist she thinks she can be. Her current project is to turn into her mother. Literally. She undoes herself to become the younger version of who she envisions her mother was, and to some extent still is, documenting the entire process, including the binge drinking.
The thing I found so incredibly interesting about this book is the examination of women and their relationships with their mothers.
Lady is examining her own relationship with her non-verbal son Seth. It’s the focus of her memoir. Yet, her journey of being a mother is tied to her own mother, so she forced to examine that relationship.
In direct contrast, S is putting effort into actually becoming her mother. She undoes her highlights, gives up her clothes and stops wearing make up, all in an effort to encapsulate who her mother was at her age. The job as a nanny is because that’s what her mother did. She drinks, she swears, she behaves with confidence and bravado to see what it is like and who she becomes. It’s very interesting that her art begins to blossom when she sheds her own self-consciousness in this new persona. I also think there’s a deeper message in how she finds herself by becoming someone else.
As a daughter, and a mother, there is an interesting push/pull in society to not become our mothers. It’s a warning, a joke, but also a fear. I was fascinated that S wanted to understand and know her mother so badly that she literally tried to become her. And then Lady, was so terrified of becoming her mother that she unwittingly began to go down the path of doing exactly that. In fact, she refused to see how she actually was doing exactly what her mother did to her until it was brought to light by Karl. Even when S tried to show her, Lady refused to see.
Beyond the dialogue and examination of motherhood, we also get some incredibly insightful observations about women and womanhood in general.
Lady is terribly lonely. She has been her entire life. Her relationship with her sister-in-law, the only other woman she’s really around, is hostile and fractured, although it’s hard to determine if this is Lady’s doing. But, in S, she sees an opportunity for an actual friend, even though she acknowledges that it may not be as pure a friendship as she would like.
“The thing about rich people,” Lady said suddenly, “is that they pay you for your services. But they also pay you to make them feel better. To be their friend.”
She knows on some level that S is only there for the paycheck, but her desire to connect with another woman is so intense, she ignores that reality.
Lady is a character who I loved and hated in equal parts. It’s hard to sympathize with her, even though you know she is struggling and floundering in her life. She’s lonely and she’s lost, but there’s a strong argument to be made that she did this to herself. She’s doesn’t want to become her mother, but she holds on to her relationship to Seth so fiercely that she is doing nothing but push him away. The harder she holds, the farther he goes.
It was difficult to determine exactly what the relationship between Lady and Seth was. In some instances, it felt like she was a little in love with her son. Perhaps that love was simply that he looked so strikingly similar to his father, Marco, the one man she desperately loved. The man who left and broke her heart. She can’t let him go, and in Seth, she doesn’t have to.
There were other instances where it felt a little Munchausen Syndrome. She didn’t want Seth communicating their “special” signs. She didn’t even want his little brother, Devon, to learn signs at all. She wanted to keep him all to herself, and became angry when Seth reached out to others instead of her. When Lady learns that Seth is keeping secrets from her, the betrayal cuts deep.
Part of this I did understand. As a single mother myself, I know how intense a bond between mother and child can be. Especially when it is you and that child against the world. It is a partnership of the strangest sort. You learn to rely and depend on each other, in a way that doesn’t exist when another parent is involved. So, I get why she would mourn the loss of that intimacy. But, she is very selfish in how she wants to keep Seth to herself. I think in some ways, if Lady could make it so Seth only had her to communicate with she would be very happy.
Again, it’s a very complex analysis of motherhood.
I really enjoyed the character S. She embodied everything that I sometimes wish I could do. My life has always been about control on some level. When you have depression and anxiety, at least with me, there is a constant sense that everything is on the brink of spiraling out of control. There is a fantasy, a secret desire to simply let it. What would it look like to just become someone else. To say what you think, and do what you want, and be who you want to be? Consequences be damned!
S has different reasons for jumping into this wild abyss, but she does it. And she commits so fully to it, that at times she isn’t even sure if it’s coming from her or her persona. There’s something alluring about that.
But I think I really enjoyed her because she just wants to find herself. Her life was determined by having a screw up mom and a stable dad. What does that make her? How does she find herself when she only has extremes to base her judgements on?
Both women end up hurting those closest to them, as their lies and carefully constructed personas fall apart. Both women also end up facing and confronting the things inside themselves that they didn’t want to see.
Being a woman isn’t easy. You are tied to so many definitions. Mother. Wife. Friend. Lover. We put these expectations on ourselves and each other, judging how we fit against others. These descriptions become intertwined with our identities and propel our decisions. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
This is a book that I will read many times over. The themes and conversations about women and motherhood and mothers in general are so deep, that I suspect each time I read it, new nuances and perspectives will jump out at me. Anyone looking for a book club book that will open many interesting debates and conversations should read this book.
I loved the dark humor, and how simple sentences captured an observation about society and life with striking precision. This book is deeply moving, and is a fantastic look at women’s relationships within society. Highly recommend!
Thank you to Blogging for Books for sending me this copy to review. And thank you to Booksparks for featuring this book as part of your #SRC2017 and sparking my interest!