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The Boston Phoenix Zen Mama

"MotherKind" meditates too much

By David Valdes Greenwood

JUNE 5, 2000: 

MotherKind by Jayne Anne Phillips. Alfred A. Knopf, 292 pages, $24.

Consider this description of nursing from Jayne Anne Phillips's latest novel. New mother Kate "did the same breathing she'd used throughout labor. She breathed evenly, silenced vocalizations cutting in like whispers at the end of each exhalation. The pain cracked through her like a thread of lightning and gradually eased, rippling like something that might wake up and get her." That passage is a good example of where Phillips is going, both in content and style: it furthers her vision of motherhood as a kind of zen mastery of pain described in rich metaphors. If only she could control her metaphors as well as her characters control their pain.

Kate, a Boston book editor, is pregnant. She's also helping two persons she loves: her boyfriend has gotten divorced and her mother, Katherine, is battling cancer. Having come to live with Kate and Kate's instant family (the boyfriend has two sons of his own), Katherine nurses her daughter through the pregnancy and childbirth; then her illness begins to take its toll and the roles are reversed. Joining them are a stream of women caretakers, first from the La Leche League and then from a hospice service. Mothering -- in all its permutations -- becomes the central issue of the book: the bond between mothers and children, and the emotional perils that come with that bond.

Phillips is at her most vivid and compelling when she's describing the link between mother and newborn son. Kate watches Alexander wake and wonders what he sees when he looks out the window; she sees "his eyes moving as the branches made their round circuit on the glass" and then imagines the sky beyond the trees, the heavens above that, "the lake above the lake." Phillips is adept at rendering contemplative moments like this one, in which the ordinary moments of childraising become resonant and profound in their specificity. Neither does she suggest that parenting is all transcendence. Soon after Alexander wakes, Kate is dealing with a screaming baby, a dinner disaster, and rowdy not-quite-stepchildren; when she murmurs, "Screw patience," it's not hard to sympathize.

But the joys and the limitations of mothering are just about all that propel the novel, and after a while the endless maternal variations start to wear. The rest of Kate's life gets short shrift; this development may reflect the realities of the first year of parenthood, but it does not engage as fiction. Certainly it reflects the worldview of the protagonist, who sees all women as being similarly baby-centered. "Most women thought they were looking for men . . . they were wrong: they were all looking for babies, even those who said they didn't want children, or didn't like them."

Those who aren't looking for babies will be disappointed here. The novel lacks narrative drive, and the writing veers from lyrical passages like those above to clunky exposition. Characters are apt to open a conversation with "Remember when" and then explain past events that the other characters already know. And Phillips makes heavy-handed use of metaphors, generally weather-related, to explain emotional situations that are already clear, as when one character says after a fight, "The storm's blown out to sea. Just a lot of wind and rain, and a few broken things." Phillips is deft in the way she creates suspense by hinting at ominous things to come, in freighted remarks between mother and daughter, or in tiny details that carry implicit warnings: "empty sand" becomes a threat not for what is seen but what is missing (in that case, the boys). But every tension she conjures is transient, and the spell breaks soon enough.

Kate's life is one of near-incident, and in the end only the expected happens. Phillips might argue that the absence of dramatic result is true to life, but if so, it's a determined sort of realism that paralyzes fiction by distilling it with the all the limitations of autobiography. For a book about the miracle of new life, MotherKind is simply too static. When Katherine admonishes Kate that she'd "better get to living," a reader might be tempted to agree.

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