The Good Mother
by Sue Miller
This book has real, raw power. It is painful, affecting and provocative. This is a very good read and also a well-crafted book.
Anna is recently and seemingly amicably, divorced from Brian. Her life is now a somewhat familiar 24-hour struggle as a working, single parent of four-year old Molly. Anna's life is dedicated to Molly, she works as a piano teacher to generate the money necessary to keep them, and like many parents, and her whole framework is centred upon her child. Anna's family had always valued achievement over emotional happiness. Her marriage to Brian was a 'good' i.e. sensible arrangement, but lacked the sensuality Anna needed.
Then Anna meets Leo, an artist, whose impulsive, exciting and unconventional life makes her feel alive and fulfilled in a way she has never known. Leo challenges Anna's pre-conceptions and awakens her sexuality, which dominates their relationship and overwhelms her. Suddenly the good mother has become a sexual being, obsessed, risk-taking and transformed by the new relationship.
But what about Molly? For a while this new family lives an enchanted, magical, and somewhat naïve life, then the fairytale is over when an allegation ends the happiness and sets into motion a great juggernaut of events culminating in legal action. The story unfolds terribly and painfully, dragging the characters along and just as Anna has to make a choice, so the reader has to make a choice too - whom to believe. As Anna's life goes dreadfully wrong she is forced to evaluate what actually makes a good mother, as now she must defend her role. The effect on Molly is also a major factor. Sue Miller pulls no punches when exposing the guilt, pain and regret the characters experience.
However, the themes and questions haunt the reader and make this a disturbing and powerful book. The destructive forces of allegation and suspicion poison Anna's new happiness. Her behaviour is seen as reckless, and this negates her good parenting. She cannot have it all. There are questions about common notions of mother (and parent) hood i.e. to what degree does society allow development of sexuality and maybe identity? Boundaries, accepted notions of behaviour, and the role of the mother are all questioned and depth is added by clever examination of Anna's family.
As a new (ish) mother and although our circumstances are not similar, I found myself caring very much about Anna and Molly. This is powerful and affecting writing, I found Anna's descent into chaos almost unbearable.
All book groups, especially those of mixed gender and generation would find this a really provocative book to discuss. It is not remotely comfortable, but absolutely a five star read.