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

The Perfect Mother
Nina Darton

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.

Stopping the story: WBN and me

I woke up this morning to the sad news that World Book Night had suspended operations because the event was too costly to continue, this despite “significant financial and time commitment from

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

publishers, writers, booksellers, librarians, printers, distributors, shippers.” It seems that the book community and individual donors had come together to support WBN, but that the organization lacked “significant, sustainable outside funding.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with World Book Night, it is was an incredible event. Writers and publishers agreed to donate titles that were specially printed for WBN and distributed by “Book Givers” on April 23 all over the country–over one and a half million books in since 2012. A-maz-ing.

I am a high school English teacher in a very small (traditionally) blue collar suburb outside a moderately-sized city in the Midwest. Pretty much middle America. But I feel as though every year I must dangle some sort of carrot to get my kids to read literature … and then I ask them to read some more. Sometimes it’s incredibly rewarding, but other times not so much. So when I heard about World Book Night three years ago (thank you, Denice!) I worried whether or not giving at school was really a good idea. After all, maybe the folks downtown at the soup kitchen where I volunteered would be more appreciative. Or maybe even at the bus stop at the end of my street? But books and teens and I have walked this readin’ road for over twenty years and we’ll be walkin’ it several more, so despite my hesitation, it seemed like a good fit.

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

Because everyone needs a book of their own. (Or, if you’re me a couple thousand books of my own, but that’s another story.) A book to smell and riffle through and maybe mark in and dog ear and–most important of all–write one’s own name in the front cover. I fussed and fretted over the titles, but, in the end, trusted the Universe to get the non-fiction books I chose into the right hands. And maybe the kids would read the book, and maybe they wouldn’t. At least not right now. But some day, that title might speak to them.

The over 600 comments on Facebook are down-hearted; I’m guessing most are former Givers like me.  More than a few have suggested Kickstarter. (If Lavar Burton can do it for Reading Rainbow, why not someone for WBN?!) The organization will remain staffed through the summer to continue social media, so you can still check them out here.

Frank Herbert said it perfectly (my husband will appreciate this reference!): “There’s no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” So World Book Night might be stopping the story but with over one and a half million books out there, “there’s no real ending.”

Remembering Nora

I remember reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in the mid-eighties … and I remember my (mental, anyway!) gasp when I read that the delightful novel was Ephron’s revenge after her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein failed. Here she sums up the deliciousness that is reading. I should probably frame it.

May you find endless stacks in your life beyond, Nora. Happy reading forever.