Not since Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers in 1942 has there been a more jaundiced portrait of motherhood. Mother, Mother is a novel about a woman so infected with narcissism that she systematically destroys her three children.

The “Mommie Dearest” in question is Josephine Hurst, a woman of impeccable appearance married to the completely ineffectual Douglas. The story is told entirely from the point of view of their second daughter, Violet, and her younger brother, William. Their older sibling, Rose, has escaped her toxic surroundings and has been living on her own. Violet sees her position as untenable and hopes to run away to join Rose in another city.

Rose never appears in the story. Violet is shocked to learn that Rose’s boy friend or husband is a phantom. We’re not sure he even exists. Violet’s dream of joining them is frustrated. We also begin to wonder whether Rose is real or not. These scenes are highly suspenseful. We wonder if Violet will ever escape her mother’s grasp. Recourse to melodrama is wisely avoided.

The author, Koren Zailckas, was born in Saudi Arabia and now lives in upper New York state. Her earlier book, Smashed, was a memoir detailing her hard-fought struggle with alcoholism. That insight plays into Mother, Mother since the dad, Douglas, is in recovery.

Josephine manipulates her children in every way imaginable sending mixed messages and inconsistent parenting until Violet feels herself in imminent physical danger. Josephine’s dominance of William is more complete, however. In the end his will is broken and his personality starts to disintegrate.

The big plus in Mother, Mother is that the psychological progression of all the characters seems valid and true. The author has clearly made a serious study of dysfunctional family dynamics. Perhaps, as with Smashed, she writes from personal experience.

The book’s title, Mother, Mother, recalls a line of dialogue by Norman Bates in the movie Psycho. The line occurs just as Norman blames his long-dead mother for crimes he himself has committed. In Mother, Mother, the situation is different. Josephine is entirely guilty of destroying the personalities of her children. For the reader, the narrative is sad but plausible and entirely gripping.

 

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