At some point, every parent wishes they had a way to communicate all the things they’ve learned about life to their children, a way that won’t make those children roll their eyes in dismay, or pat you on the shoulder with a patronizing smile. Barbara, a mother of four grown daughters in Elizabeth Noble’s novel Things I Want My Daughters to Know, is feeling this need in a profound way because she’s dying, and is quite desperate to impart her particular brand of motherly wisdom to the young women she is leaving behind.
During the course of her illness, Barbara has written letters to each of her daughters – to Lisa, so afraid to commit her life to the man she loves, to Jennifer, who holds her emotions so tightly in check she’s ruining her marriage, to Amanda, who’s infected with a permanent sense of wanderlust, and teenaged Hannah, standing on the cusp of womanhood yet still very much a girl.
In true motherly fashion, Barbara seems to know what each girl needs – her advice is warm, funny, at times irreverent. She shares some secrets about her own past that cause her daughters to see their mother in a different light, making their sisterly bond all the stronger in the process.
Noble has structured this novel in an interesting way, for Barbara’s letters and journal entries are interspersed with longer narratives dedicated to each of the four daughters, and to Barbara’s second husband, Mark. The narrative portion of the novel actually opens with Barbara’s funeral, and then moves forward one month at a time until it ends at the first anniversary of her death. This structure works quite well for this novel, and helps manage the multiple characters as well as the alternating viewpoints.
I must confess, the theme of this book took me aback somewhat. Two years ago, the “novel” I wrote for NaNoWriMo was based on a similar construct, although it was entirely letters penned by a woman with terminal cancer directed to her unborn grandaughter. The letters were intended to be partly introduction to a grandmother the child would never know, and part passing on of a legacy of life lessons. Barbara reminded me a great deal of Tara, the character in my book. Noble did an admirable job of keeping the book from becoming maudlin or overly sentimental, something I tired quite hard to do as well. Although I haven’t looked at that manuscript since the day I crossed the NaNo word limit line and typed “the end,” I’m sort of pleased that someone has made a successful novel out of a similar concept.
Things I Want My Daughters To Know is the perfect book to share with your mother, your sister, your daughter…reading it feels like sitting around the table with a cluster of women, talking, laughing, sharing life experiences. Noble, herself the mother of young daughters, certainly gets the dichotomyof modern life. On her blog she writes about “the trinity of me” – juggling the multiple roles of mother, wife, and writer.
My life has three parts: I am a mother first, a wife second and an author third. The collision of “these three MEs” leads to many adventures and mis-adventures. It’s a world that is not calm, but is exciting. What gets me through it? Humor and honesty. I am sure you can relate…”
Humor and honesty abound in Things I Want My Daughters To Know, and Noble has done an admirable job of infusing her story with both.
by Barbara Noble
published April, 2008, by Harper Collins