She’s got it all: The Perfect Mother (review)

The Perfect Mother
Nina Darton
Plume

Jennifer Lewis leads a perfect life—her Connecticut home is oh-so-shabby-chic, her lawyer husband handsome and successful, her three children active and popular. Jennifer herself gave up a career as a model and TV actress so that she could dedicate all of her time to family. Jennifer is the Perfect Mother.

Until a middle-of-the-night phone call threatens to destroy her reality. Daughter Emma, spending her junior year (from Princeton, no less!) abroad, calls from Spain—she’s in jail, claims rape, and is accused of being an accomplice to murder. As all Perfect Mothers do, Jennifer flies to her side, but is taken aback by Emma’s aloof, maybe even ungrateful, demeanor. The weeks that follow put Jennifer under the reader’s scrutiny, especially once dad Mark arrives in Spain and doesn’t fully believe Emma’s story—that the murdered boy followed her home and dartonforced his way into her apartment at knife point; that a young Algerian heard her cries and came to save Emma, stabbing her attacker in a struggle; that the Algerian, undocumented and fearful of being deported, ran away into the night. Jennifer and Mark fight; Emma and Jennifer argue.

Enter Emma’s lawyer, Jose, who reveals to the Lewis’s that Emma may have been leading a life on the edge. Her boyfriend, Paco, is a drug dealer who has vanished and the police want him for questioning. Emma swears Paco sells drugs only to send money to his home village as a kind of Spanish Robin Hood—she claims the police just want to trap him. Jose sets out to find Paco, discover the truth of the attack, and free Emma from prison. He also provides a shoulder for Jennifer to cry on, and their attachment becomes a little too close for comfort.

Young parents always worry that two-year-old tantrums and pubescent rebellion are warning signs that one’s parenting has fallen short. I think, rather, it’s those early adult years that prove the parenting pudding and writer Nina Darton captures this perfectly. When adult children get into trouble, like Jennifer one might have “this pathetic realization that you failed, that you made some terrible mistake that caused this.” And mothers especially, I think, blame themselves. Here’s Jennifer again: “I’m selfish, I’m pushy, I’m too optimistic, or I’m overly dramatic, or I’m too blind, or I’m naïve or see only what I want to see …”

Maybe being a Perfect Mother actually is a curse and not a blessing. Could it be that the time and energy and hopes and dreams we mothers invest into our children end up jinxing them … and ourselves? Darton’s Perfect Mother is rich and thought-provoking, torn straight from the front page ala Amanda Knox—and her plot twist at the end could lead to hours of book group heart-to-hearts.

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