My mother caught me rummaging in her nightstand, she said, You must never look in there again. She said, Certain things are private. Do you know what private means? I did, but I told her I didn’t, which was maybe what my version of private meant. From then on I understood my mother to be private, in how she kept herself to herself, and in how, in my mind, she belonged only to me.
This novel is beautiful and my heart sank over and over. The expectations of motherhood, the needs of children, the dysfunction of so many homes- that alien feeling Agnes feels away at college trying to be like those other peppy, sunny girls, the ones likely from loving fun families. It is the 1990’s, Agnes mother has disappeared, but where… just up and went away like a bird, goodbye. Agnes pens letters to her throughout the novel, first at college when she should have a mother to confide in but is stuck with only letters she has nowhere to send then later when she is pregnant. Her ‘unavailable mother’, leaving her an empty gaping wound, feeling sorry for her father sadly waiting all alone in an empty house, feeling half resentful of his sorrow and responsible for him. But she cannot go home, to that vacuum of silence, the place where all that’s felt is absence of the two other people who should be there. First her brother left the family, and in many ways it feels mysterious, why? Why and how? How to understand it? How it was the start of the ruin of her family and the door opening for her mother to leave as well.
Despite the punishing feeling of the disappearance, Agnes goes to classes, and finds love. This is such a sad family story, beautifully written, I highlighted so many passages. Agnes is so very lost and has nothing to hold her up, just herself. Love isn’t always salvation, but the young need it so badly when they’re adrift, as anchor. “I guess the body is a ruinous place or it is a comfort. I go to Tea Rose like going to church, or therapy, or the ocean, and I just surrender there, floating, bobbing. Is this love, or is this oblivion, or are they the same thing.” But love is fickle, Tea Rose is young, can he be expected to be present when everyone else has left? Agnes is cracking, slipping, the past can’t be purged regardless of where you go, it shadows every happy moment. She meets Joan, a refuge of sorts from the campus, from her budding and waning love. But she knows, “Ruin doesn’t ask permission.” While she’d love to have a taste of Joan’s life, a baby complicates everything.
When she gets pregnant she keeps it to herself for a while, even from the only person truly left she can run to, her father. She can’t stay in college if she keeps it, but she can’t go home, she can’t go back to that end point. What other choice is there? As she is without a mother, when she needs one most, she learns to take care of herself, and the baby inside of her. It’s time to let go, to stop crying out for her mother, stop thinking about Tea Rose, and create a new life. It’s not long before she will have a child in her arms, one that maybe she can create a true bond with, rather than a pitiful, fantasy of a relationship she has through letters with her own. But she is going to slip, she is going to sink before she can find her inner strength.
It’s a difficult book to write a review for because it’s an internal journey into Agnes’s life, mind, and pain. I devoured this, it’s more literary fiction to me, and I loved it. I think there are moments in all mother/daughter relationships where you’re left out, or absent yourself. Not to this extreme, but still. Being a mother is a blessing but terrifying too, more so if you haven’t had that warm closeness with your own. It is too easy to fail, how do you know how to mother if all you can see is how not to be? If your example was cold distance, walls that can’t be breached and worse, the boy you loved isn’t available either… well this is one complicated mess.
It’s a window into a different sort of college story too, not the usual finding yourself and thriving. It’s feeling different still, lost, lonely and the things you thought were amazing about yourself dulled by others that are better. It’s a raw journey for Agnes. It’s a baby story awash with a mixture of grief, fear and hope. What a novel!
Publication Date: August 1, 2017