Review: In a debut thriller, a ‘bad mother’ story you can actually believe
On the Shelf
By Ashley Audrain
Pamela Dorman: 320 pages, $26
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In the opening pages of her debut novel, “The Push,” Ashley Audrain indelibly implants her narrator in the reader’s mind as the woman sits in her car, watching a happy family at Christmastime. Through the picture window, she tracks the husband’s dance moves, the wife’s loving touch, the teenaged daughter and the young son in matching plaids. The narrator’s longing — and something more dangerous — is palpable, especially when the wife lights candles nestled among the fir boughs on the mantel: “I let myself imagine, for a moment, watching those boughs go up in flames while you all sleep tonight. I imagine the warm, butter-yellow glow of your house turn to a hot, crackling red.” Loss, envy and retribution play out in the scene. More importantly, the narrator has an overriding desire to set the record straight, evidenced by the manuscript she’s about to give the man: “my side of the story.”
Told in staccato bursts of memory and history illuminating the present, “The Push” details the courtship, marriage and undoing of Blythe and Fox Connor — the woman in the car and the man in the window. Meeting cute in college and married by 26, they support each other’s dreams (he’s an aspiring architect, she a fiction writer) yet see their relationship through very different lenses. Fox dreams of having babies with Blythe. “I had nothing when I met you, and you so effortlessly became my everything,” Blythe says, but she views with suspicion and trepidation his confidence in her as a mother.
With good reason. Flashbacks throughout “The Push” provide glimpses of Blythe’s matrilineal history and its generational traumas, which date back to her grandmother, Etta, in the 1930s. A tragedy soon after her marriage drives young Etta to her bed, while the care of her young daughter, Cecilia — Blythe’s mother — falls to Cecilia’s grandmother. Childhood cruelties handed down from Etta to Cecilia to Blythe bear out Cecilia’s ominous prediction: “One day, you’ll understand, Blythe. The women in this family…we’re different.”
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Behavioral health experts have a term for the consequences when mothers are unable to provide the nurturing and attention their children need: attachment disorder. Audrain’s oblique references suggest an understanding of such matters, but the novel sidesteps the psychoanalyst’s couch for concrete and horrific details: Etta almost drowns Cecilia while washing her unruly hair, and later wedges her into a tiny root cellar and locks the door. These are just two of many horror stories Blythe overhears Cecilia tell her father over the years, leading her to conclude “that we are all grown from something. That we carry on the seed, and I was part of her garden.”
When Blythe gives in to Fox’s desires and becomes pregnant — putting her writing ambitions on hold — the distance between what she considers her inherited nature and the loving mother she is supposed to be becomes apparent. A box of Fox’s beloved baby keepsakes evokes no memory of such treasures in her own childhood. She watches other pregnant mothers and wonders how she will ever cross that divide within herself. When Violet is born — a colicky baby girl who refuses to be comforted — it drives Blythe further away and deeper into her anxiety. “Violet only cried when she was with me,” her mother laments. “It felt like a betrayal. We were supposed to want each other.”
As cranky Violet grows into a spiteful, manipulative child, the nature-nurture question again rears its head; was Violet raised or born this way? A series of increasingly serious incidents make Blythe suspect the latter, but her warnings are shut down by Fox, whom the girl clearly adores, as well as by Blythe’s own guilt and anxiety about what might be inherited trauma but is certainly her failure to connect. A second child, Sam, finally brings Blythe the bliss she craves but at a terrible cost, upending the novel and driving Blythe to the brink of insanity and — finally — to her former husband’s door.
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Through Blythe’s struggles and the slow-motion implosion of her marriage, Audrain cleverly examines and exploits women’s near-universal anxiety that they won’t measure up to some internalized standard of maternal perfection dictated by society. Audrain also riffs on the concept of the Bad Seed — popularized in film and television — inviting readers to wonder whether Violet is the culmination of a multigenerational curse, a victim of Blythe’s inability to mother … or whether the woman is just bonkers.
There are enough novels about unreliable female narrators and neglectful mothers to fill a minivan; “Gone Girl,”“The Girl on the Train” and “The Perfect Nanny” are some recent examples. The surface familiarity surely helped Audrain land a massive advance for the book, which is “Good Morning America’s” book-club selection this month. But what makes it stand out from the rest is Audrain’s nuanced understanding of how women’s voices are discounted, how a thousand little slights can curdle a solid marriage and — in defiance of maternal taboos — how mothers really feel, sometimes, toward difficult children.
Women who have experienced such trying circumstances, or even just imagined them, will see themselves depicted authentically, without the judgment and hand-wringing that so often accompanies typical genre fare. Just as satisfying was the buildup to the resolution of “The Push” (and the revelation of its evocative title), anticipating the moment when Blythe might finally find her voice.
Blythe’s journey to that resolution brings her back to the novel’s opening scene — a metafictional moment that forces her to make peace with her identity as a mother, a woman and a creative force in her own right. These broader investigations make “The Push” more than a novel of suspense, the sum of its parts speaking to the burdens we all carry, whether we are mothers or simply children of women who did the best they could, however far their best efforts may have fallen short.
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Woods is a book critic, editor and author of the Charlotte Justice series of crime novels.
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