Henry Holt and Co.; Ecco
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May 07, 2018 at 01:42 PM EDT

Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother begins in childbirth. Nearly 10 pages are dedicated to the big moment, in all of its beauty and agony, laced with humor and remarkably rich in detail. The scene is as immersive and transporting as a Tolkien fantasy: Alam guides you into the hospital room — every scream heard, every push felt, every random, seemingly irrelevant thought transcribed — and creates a whole world, filled with life and tension, to explore within it.

Alam, previously behind 2016’s best-selling Rich and Pretty, is a writer of true empathy. His second novel centers on Rebecca, a poet who’s just given birth to her first child. When her nanny Priscilla, a black woman with whom she’s bonded, dies in childbirth, Rebecca decides to adopt the newborn and welcome Priscilla’s adult daughter, Cheryl, into her family. Rebecca’s eyes are soon opened to the realities of race in America; her quest to overcome her privilege and thrive as a parent sends her marriage on a downward spiral. There are so many small scenes, so many off-the-cuff comments and musings, which contribute to the novel’s mission. Alam, the parent of adopted children, writes from the inside out. He understands Rebecca and her predicament — her naiveté, her inescapable privilege — profoundly.

Mother isn’t big on plot or surprise. It thrills in its attention to nuance, its construction of a full, flawed, loving heroine. Alam’s generous rendering rings authentic. Whatever takeaway one has of Rebecca, a protagonist sure to polarize due to the verisimilitude with which Alam draws her, she emerges with an open, beating heart. It’s partly because Alam knows when to gracefully drive in the knife. He’s wry, but never cruel — confident enough to pinpoint life’s ugliness while keeping hope alive.

The same can be said of Sheila Heti, best known as the author of the acclaimed How Should a Person Be? Her new book Motherhood isn’t quite a novel — it’s an interior monologue, stuffed with hundreds of binary questions about whether or not to have a child. The narrator (also named Sheila) is nearing middle-age, with her peers reaching milestones that remain, for her, very far away. What does this woman want? In urgent, first-person prose, Heti contrasts societal expectation with personal desire.

Motherhood considers its titular topic terrifyingly undefinable, an array of singular experiences. For Sheila, it’s about being a writer: whether to create life at the expense of creating art. She is an incisive speaker, almost all-seeing — a conflicted, humane voice for women in similar predicaments. Heti takes an indulgently unusual approach to telling her story, especially as she veers off track: She takes Sheila on road trips, to a psychic, around and around and around on a meandering journey to (hopeful) revelation. Sheila asks midway through the book, “What to do about this tremulous feeling inside?” Over Motherhood’s 250-plus pages, she’ll ask the same thing again, in dozens of variations.

Motherhood is a starkly intimate recital of waiting and questioning, while the world indifferently passes by. As psychological inquiry, it’s undeniably effective. But the book, consumed as it is by hypotheticals, takes a circular shape, tracing over itself with increasingly sharp insights and blunt language. (“The egoism of childbearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country,” one such inflammatory passage goes, lest it was unclear which direction Heti was leaning toward.) But it’d be too easy, too limiting, to say that Heti’s literary effort is unsuccessful. To the contrary: Frustration and ambiguity are rooted in the book’s very argument. However redundant Motherhood is, that’s where the book’s sneaky power lies, in a layered question which lacks an answer: How should a mother be?

That Kind of Mother: A-
Motherhood: B

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