Womanhood explored in novels

By Leah Friedman

With the arrival of spring and the recent celebration of Mother’s Day, the themes of motherhood and womanhood in literature are fresh in my mind. I appreciate novels that explore the difficult elements of motherhood and feature complex female characters. Here are some of my recent reads that explore the role of mothers, their impact and influence.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine; she has a dark, complicated past in which her mother looms large. Eleanor is an unconventional protagonist who struggles to relate to others and is often abrasive and judgmental. Eleanor is not concerned with fitting in. She holds a great amount of disdain for others and does not shy away from expressing it. Eleanor has built herself a solitary and repetitive life, and she relies on this monotony to keep her mind from stumbling upon hard truths. Eleanor must learn to rely on others while separating herself from her destructive mother’s lasting influence. Honeyman uses humour to alleviate the heavy themes of loneliness and trauma.

Mrs. Everything – Jennifer Weiner

This expansive novel features a woman moving through life and experiencing both sides of the mother-daughter relationship. It is a fascinating look at the evolution of social expectations for women in North America from the 1950s to present day. The novel follows the lives of sisters Bethie and Jo Kaufman as they struggle between these norms and finding a life that is authentic. Bethie initially finds it easy to fit in, pleasing her mother and peers. However, the appearance of perfection comes with a price, and Bethie begins to struggle when she is consumed by the counterculture and the inability to settle into a chosen path. Jo pushes against her strict mother’s oppressive expectations, seeking education and freedom. After a traumatic romantic fallout, Jo succumbs to the pressure to be “normal” but is later confronted by the inadequacies of her picturesque suburban life and marriage. This novel deftly explores womanhood while also engaging with gender, race and sexuality.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

In her latest novel, Patchett explores a family over the course of five decades. Danny, the protagonist, is born into a new-money family and is faced with the reality of the sacrifices that must be made to achieve wealth. Danny’s mother becomes a casualty of his father’s quest for greatness. Danny and his sister Maeve are shaped by the loss of their mother, and they struggle to find themselves when their father’s new wife casts them out of the opulent family home. Maeve becomes a stand-in mother for Danny as they navigate their new meager circumstances together. Later in life, the siblings face both their wicked stepmother and runaway mother as they try to make peace with their past. The audiobook version of this novel is read by Tom Hanks – I loved what he brought to the narration.

Today Will Be Different

– Maria Semple

Following her bestselling novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Semple brings us another screwball comedy in her signature style. We follow Eleanor Flood through a single day of her life as she struggles to balance her marriage, childcare, career and social life. With Eleanor’s TV writing career at a standstill, she evades her agent’s calls and puts it out of her mind. Her husband, a successful surgeon, has relocated the family to Seattle, and their son is enrolled in a prestigious private school. Eleanor is hesitant to join the circle of rich suburban mothers and makes several disastrous missteps. Flashbacks are used to explore the past and provide a fuller picture of Eleanor’s strained relationship with her sister. Eleanor’s imagination takes the reader on a wild ride of deranged fantasies that help break up the single-day narrative. Underlying the comedy and levity of this novel is the very sincere recognition of any woman who rises every morning with the intention to do better for herself and her family.

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

This fish-out-of-water story features American expat Anna Benz who lives with her Swiss husband and three children in Zurich. Despite the wealth and comfort, Anna finds no joy in her life. The novel follows Anna as she tries to find her way, first with German language class and psychoanalysis and later with reckless extramarital affairs. Anna is miserable and feels trapped in the gilded cage of her life; her endless lies and deception sabotage any chance of success in her therapy, marriage or motherhood. Anna muses about the meaning of being and guilt but never arrives at any satisfying answer. Ultimately, a traumatic event forces Anna to consider anything but her own misery, and she is forced to pay the price for her transgressions.

These titles and many more are available at your local Sunnyside Branch of the public library.

Leah Friedman is a public service assistant at the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. She loves being in nature and staying active and keeps busy sewing and overwatering her plants.

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