After reading myriad books about modern motherhood -- memoirs, academic studies, pop culture surveys, novels and anthologies -- I've figured out this: There are many versions of a "good" mother, and the prescription for American motherhood is impossible to fill because a mother needs to be all things to all people and everywhere all of the time. Smart arguments for doing it well while doing it your way are a Mother's Day gift beyond compare. Here are two new books that will help more than flowers or chocolate: "Belong to Me" by Marisa de los Santos and "Nice to Come Home To" by Rebecca Flowers.
Marisa de los Santos' spellbinding second novel is, arguably, about many things: the complicated social web of an affluent Philadelphia suburb; what makes a marriage strong or breaks it apart; the bonds between siblings; the impact of illness and death; the secret lives of adolescent boys; the joys of pasta puttanesca; and string theory. But it's mostly about mothering. You'll notice that I didn't say motherhood. "Belong to Me" is full of action -- and I don't mean plot, although there's plenty of that too -- but rather true, profound, emotional movement.
The story is of three suburban women: Piper, a queen bee, mother of two with perfectly bobbed blond hair and flawless abs; Lake, a single mother with a secret past; and Cornelia, the warm, witty and well-dressed narrator of de los Santos' first novel, "Love Walked In." Cornelia is not a mother but she longs to be.
I spent a chunk of the novel not liking Piper, for all of the reasons I often don't like myself -- she judges quickly, avoids emotionally difficult situations and cares way too much about the appearance of things -- but I never once doubted that she is an excellent and natural mother. Piper's children, and the children of her best friend, Elizabeth, who is dying of cancer, are the beating heart of Piper's very life. Piper can be cold, but only when she feels something or someone threatening her immediate and extended family, the family she crafted lovingly and deliberately through proximity and genuine affection.
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Lake, sympathetic and needy, is singularly dedicated to feeding her son Dev's wildly curious mind. Dev gives new meaning to the word gifted as the only 13-year-old boy in the history of 13-year-old boys to willingly parse an Emily Dickinson poem with a grown-up. He also starts a lawn care business with his best friend; saves a classmate with OCD from a potentially humiliating fire-drill experience; and characterizes the laugh of the girl he has a crush on this way: "Clare laughed her jingle-bell laugh, and Dev realized that what he felt was young. He'd been young all his life, of course he had. But now he was aware of it. Every cell, every electron of his body felt young: unencumbered, uncluttered, clean as the clear blue sky." (Sparkling sentences throughout the novel remind that de los Santos is an award-winning poet.) Even when Lake is obtuse or cryptic or downright underhanded, it's hard to condemn her because everything she does is for Dev. Her devotion trumps all.
And then there is Cornelia. Fans of de los Santos' first book will tell you how much they wish Cornelia could be their best friend. She's the ultimate conversationalist. Cornelia is also empathetic and generous, with a great fashion sense and unerring sense of humor. But her true genius is as a nurturer -- which is what we all really want in a best friend. She takes care of everyone -- her husband; Clare, the 13-year-old girl she fostered for a while; her neighbors, her siblings, Lake, Dev, even Piper, her neighborhood nemesis. But Cornelia truly excels in the less obvious ways of mothering. She pays attention and listens; she meets people where they are emotionally and responds in a way that they can understand and believe; she is warm when warmth is called for and tough when only toughness will do. And she knows when to laugh and when to (literally) collapse. That Cornelia mothers Piper and Lake through life-changing crises accounts for their evolutions from villain to friend (Piper) and from mystery to colleague (Lake). Cornelia mothers her baby brother, Toby, as well, and eventually, he changes from a happy-go-lucky, overgrown boy into a father and a man. If these sound like profound transformations, they are. In de los Santos' skillful hands, they happen subtly. Her characters are fully formed from the start, so it's nothing short of miraculous when you find that they have blossomed into fuller, better, brighter versions of themselves by the end of the book, thanks to Cornelia's mothering.
Rebecca Flowers' debut novel, "Nice to Come Home To," features two sisters, Prudence and Patience, neither of whom behaves according to the virtue of her name. Known as Pru and Patsy, they appear, at first, to be an uptight thinker and an irresponsible feeler respectively. Pru lives in Washington, D.C., where she has recently launched herself as a grant-writing consultant after losing her grant-writing job. She has been dumped by her boyfriend, Rudy -- a man she didn't want to marry until she did because she's 36 and running late on her plan to be married with kids by 29. Patsy, the single mother of a 2-year-old named Annali, comes to visit her sister and winds up staying. What follows is the sisters coming together to better understand themselves and each other. That plot is not a surprise. What's refreshing are the lovely evocations of Washington and the fact that this book about our nation's capital -- and the city becomes a character the way New York City is a character in Carrie Bradshaw's life -- but is not about politics. And like Cornelia, Pru would make an excellent friend. She too is funny and flawed and emotionally available. But the best thing that happens to Pru is that she learns to mother herself. Even after adopting a cat with a bad attitude and adopting her wayward sister and niece, Pru continues to flail around, lost in a city she knows is her home. But once she fesses up to who she really wants to be -- a business woman who puts her smarts to work for the thing she loves, fashion, Pru finds herself. When she tends to her need to own something, to will it into existence and success, she stops seeming like a lovable loser and becomes a formidable woman. Usually I'm skeptical of the idea of fulfillment through entrepreneurship, but for Pru it turns out to be the best, most admirable way to grow herself up.