It’s really only a coincidence that I’m writing and publishing this review on Mother’s Day weekend. But here we are, being apropos!
In Motherland, Elissa Altman displays her talent for imbuing the mundane with powerful meaning. The closet the contains a tiny, red plaid umbrella, an old mink coat, a child’s grade school notebooks, baby teeth, a wedding gown, is not just clutter but objects that serve as a balm to a highly anxious, traumatized woman who needs constant reassurance that her life has been a life well-lived, even when she feels strongly it’s been otherwise. Objects that are tangible evidence of her love for her daughter, that she was a good mother even when she wasn’t.
What kind of mother can you be when you’ve never felt enough your entire life, when you carry the weight of intergenerational trauma? Elissa Altman works to understand this woman who raised her, who made it clear that she could’ve been so much more if she hadn’t been stuck in this motherhood role. It’s easy to be angry at Rita–how dare she be resentful of motherhood. But I’m inspired by Elissa’s empathy for her mother, her willingness to understand why her mother is the way she is, and it’s impossible to be angry. Frustrated, definitely. Angry, no. Deeply sympathetic for Elissa’s dilemma–to preserve her own sanity by putting distance between herself and her mother, or to take the fifth commandment to heart. The dilemma is made all the more vexing because Elissa’s late father had implored her to remember to honor thy mother and father, always.
Elissa Altman’s vivid storytelling, and uncanny ability to evoke a time, a place, a feeling with mere words make this a book that needs to be on your Must Read list. Motherland is out from Ballantine in August 2019, and available for preorder on Amazon.
More from NetGalley:
How can a mother and daughter who love (but don’t always like) each other coexist without driving each other crazy? It’s the universal question that has defined mothers and daughters from Demeter and Persephone to Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.
“Wise, evocative, and rich in insight, this compassionate and beautiful memoir is ultimately an act of love.”—Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl
After surviving a traumatic childhood in nineteen-seventies New York and young adulthood living in the shadow of her flamboyant mother, Rita, a makeup-addicted former television singer, Elissa Altman has managed to build a very different life, settling in Connecticut with her wife of nearly twenty years. After much time, therapy, and wine, Elissa is at last in a healthy place, still orbiting around her mother but keeping far enough away to preserve the stable, independent world she has built as a writer and editor. Then Elissa is confronted with the unthinkable: Rita, whose days are spent as a flâneur, traversing Manhattan from the Clinique counters at Bergdorf to Bloomingdale’s and back again, suffers an incapacitating fall, leaving her completely dependent upon her daughter.
Now Elissa is forced to finally confront their profound differences, Rita’s yearning for beauty and glamour, her view of the world through her days in the spotlight, and the money that has mysteriously disappeared in the name of preserving youth. To sustain their fragile mother-daughter bond, Elissa must navigate the turbulent waters of their shared lives, the practical challenges of caregiving for someone who refuses to accept it, the tentacles of narcissism, and the mutual, frenetic obsession that has defined their relationship.
Motherland is a story that touches every home and every life, mapping the ferocity of maternal love, moral obligation, the choices women make about motherhood, and the possibility of healing. Filled with tenderness, wry irreverence, and unforgettable characters, it is an exploration of what it means to escape from the shackles of the past only to have to face them all over again.
Advance praise for Motherland
“Rarely has a mother-daughter relationship been excavated with such honesty. Elissa Altman is a beautiful, big-hearted writer who mines her most central subject: her gorgeous, tempestuous, difficult mother, and the terrain of their shared life. The result is a testament to the power of love and family.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
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