It’s 1986, and the ravenous reader is a young mother, raising her six year old son in a conventional family, living in a perfectly nice home in the suburbs. She reads The Good Mother, a first novel by Sue Miller, a tale of a young mother raising her four year old daughter. But the similarities end there – Anna Dunlap has divorced her attorney husband, has left behind her suburban lifestyle, and moved into a small city apartment, hoping to craft a life of emotional fulfillment for herself and for Molly. And she certainly does, at least for a time, in her love affair with Leo Cutter, an artist whose bohemian lifestyle and attitudes release Anna from the emotional strictures which have bound her so far.
“From the start, we fought and then made love, both with a passionate intensity that I had thought lost to me…I felt I’d been traveling all my life to meet him, to be released by him. I was unprepared for Leo, for my own responsiveness to him; for the sense I had that while most lost in myself, most trapped in the flesh I had to wear, I moved so absolutely away from myself, so close to someone else.”
And while Anna basks in this release of passion, she admits that “there was some sense in which during my passion for Leo, I forgot Molly. Maybe in no worse a way than mothers of three or four children sometimes forget one of them for a while, or women living in a time which didn’t make them concentrate such energy on the issue of their children’s emotional life could and perhaps sometimes did forget them. But the sense of blankness about Molly that thinking of Leo conjures for me now is horrifying…”
As you might expect, Anna’s passion leads to disaster. Poor judgement, combined with the heavy lidded moral vision of a woman who has newly discovered the power of her own sexuality, leads to a moment which endangers Molly, and raises serious moral and legal questions about Anna’s ability to be a “good mother.”
Long ago in 1986, I was incensed at the outcome of this novel, consumed with feminist rage that Anna’s emotional life and personal relationship could be used against her, that her privacy could be invaded by “men” from the outside world who placed judgement on her actions, that a legal system would overlook a child’s welfare simply to “punish” a woman for being a sexual being.
Fast forward 20 years in the life of the ravenous reader, twenty years during which she has continued living her conventional suburban life, has finished raising her child (or as “finished” as a mother can ever be, which is to say, the child is grown and has a home of their own), has moved on past the overwhelming obligations of life with young children. She reads the novel again, and finds her reaction quite different.
For this time, her sympathy for Anna is noticeably diminished.
This time round, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at Anna’s actions, the way she fell in with Leo so quickly, allowed him such ready access to her life and her child, at their actions around Molly, taking her into bed with them, dancing naked in front of her. I could almost see the inevitable “tsk tsk” escape from my thoughts. Tight lipped, I continued reading, through Anna’s hastily arranged abortion, her conversations with court appointed psychiatrists.
“We were all-Molly too-we were all happy. It was part of the new world he, my lover, opened up to me, where I was beautiful, sex together was beautiful, and Molly was part of our love, our life.”
Oh, grow up, I want to tell her.
Perhaps some of my feelings about Anna stem from the distance she maintains throughout the book, the way she holds herself aloof from everyone -except Leo. Even her interactions with Molly seem reserved and somewhat clinical. Of course, it is Anna’s distance from emotion that has led her here, to be overwhelmed by a passion that has finally been unearthed. And the origins of Anna’s emotional sterility -of course-were her own mother, who searched for a uniqueness in her only daughter that Anna was incapable of supplying. “It was with the regretful sense of having failed my mother that I initially embraced my sense of myself sexually: if I could not be great, I could be female.” But her casual teenage affairs fail to satisfy, as does her marriage, her music – in fact, Anna seems unable to find passion in anything until Leo comes along.
Sighing, I found it awfully difficult to muster much sympathy for Anna. All my sympathies were reserved for Molly, who was forced to deal with adult sized emotions and situations long before she was ready. By the end of the book, Anna admits that “sometimes it filled me with shame and a kind of grief that we had asked from her, and she had achieved, such mastery over her sorrow.”
Perhaps what really explains my reaction to this novel is what I’ve learned in the past 20 years about the way those moments of childhood pass so quickly, that the experience of motherhood is one to be cherished and savored, lasting no more than an eyeblink in a woman’s life. That time when a child’s focus on the parent is so intense, when the impressions made are everlasting and life changing, that most passionate of times called motherhood.
Why jeopardize that for anything?
And yet, with all the complicated feelings this novel aroused, the writing was splendid, the characterizations full and complete, the drama intense. The Good Mother is a fine novel, one well worth reading -and re-reading-at any age.
by Sue Miller
published 1986, Harper & Row
read an interview with Sue Miller