Review: The Perfect Mother

Before I became a mother, I had a lot of preconceived notions about the “proper” way to do many mothering things — how to handle sleeping, whether to breastfeed or offer formula, what kind of behavior was acceptable from women who were mothers. To an extent, many of my core values remain unchanged; but my understanding of variations in mothering has deepened exponentially.

For example, there’s not a chance in hell I’m going to bring a baby into my bed to sleep between my husband and me — I’d be up all night, fearful of rolling over the wee babe or smothering him with blankets — but I know that parenting is often merely about survival (yours + theirs) and if that demands bedsharing from some families, so be it.

And while I won’t pretend to never pass judgement on other parents (c’mon, I’m human), I do refrain from publicly shaming parents on social media, because #NotMyBusiness. Unfortunately, not everyone adheres to this standard, and it’s almost always the mothers who take the fall for “bad parenting.”

In Aimee Molloy’s highly-anticipated debut work titled The Perfect Mother, readers are in for a tense ride when a mom-buddies group gets together for a night out on the town that culminates in the disappearance of one mother’s newborn and an investigation that becomes increasingly public as the mother — and then the group of mothers — are put on trial by the court of public opinion. Winnie, Colette, Francie, and Nell are part of the May Mothers — a group of first-time moms whose babies arrived in the same month and by accident or grand design, happened to become friends in the process. The four (and some other, less important mom-characters) met at a park in NYC a handful of times leading up to the birth of their children and continued to do so after their births.

It’s Nell’s idea, to start with: a night out on the town. The mothers are frazzled with the fears and nerves and sleeplessness that constitutes early motherhood, their social lives have been reduced to the marginal park visits with one another, and their careers have taken a backseat to diaper changes and growth charts. Winnie seems particularly discontent, and the mothers have just discovered she’s doing it all alone (an unfathomable task, to be certain). So Nell makes arrangements for a sitter, wheedles Winnie into joining the girls for a few drinks and some dancing, and everyone’s life goes to hell in a handbasket within a matter of hours.

When Winnie arrives at her expansive Brooklyn home to discover her son missing, she’s heartbroken — though it seems, at times, not quite as much as she should be. (Like there’s a standard expectation for mourning mothers, right?) Colette, Francie, and Nell take an immediate interest in the outcome of Baby Midas’s disappearance and soon find themselves engaging in suspicious behaviors and inserting themselves into conversations and situations they should really remain distant from.

The novel moves fairly rapidly forward from the events leading up to and following the baby’s disappearance: I devoured this 300-page thriller in less than two days. There was a lot to appreciate in this debut work, though a few components left me dissatisfied.

Here’s what worked: Molloy’s real treat for readers lies in her mostly spot-on portrayal of the rigors of motherhood: the unforgiving pressure to breastfeed rather than formula-feed; the struggle to maintain a sense of personal identity, separate from one’s new identity as Milk Cow and Primary Caregiver; the unfairness of a constantly-judging (& publicly posting) society. At times she got a bit preachy (there’s a section on maternity leave in the US vs other countries at the start of the novel that, though absolutely accurate and on point, feels hyper-clichéd and drawn out — most of her readers are likely to be women and have heard the facts and felt the fury themselves; ultimately, it felt like a tirade for the author’s sake, rather than the reader’s) but the majority of Molloy’s commentary on what it means to be a modern mother was on point. Molloy also has this very strong mob-mentality vibe going throughout the novel (re: judging public) but it’s a bit different from other books in which the reader is part of the collective we — in The Perfect Mother, the reader is part of a smaller collective we, the mothers group, which is less focused on burning a witch at the stake and more focused on the horrors done to one of their own. The mothers in this group have only known each other for a few months, and most of their friendships are far from deep and meaningful; but Molly effectively captures the immediately-tethering relationship among new mothers who are so ready to welcome others into their wobbly (& sometimes capsizing) boats of uncertainty.

Here’s what didn’t: The narratives are messily pieced together, leaving the reader confused about which character is the narrator at any given time. It’s like Molloy wanted to deviate from the now-traditional method of starting each chapter with a different character as the heading/narrator, but didn’t quite succeed in creating seamless transitions. There are lots of red herrings in this book, most of which worked for me; but a couple that I felt could have been trimmed. And mostly, Francie: oh, Francie. Her character was a hot-mess express and almost always unbelievable. Molloy isn’t wrong in that postpartum mothers have been known, on occasion, to effectively “lose their minds”; however, I don’t feel that Francie’s character had an adequate resolution, nor were her issues fully addressed. At several junctures, characters indicated they were “worried for her,” but never were definitive steps taken to correct these problems; instead, Francie was simply absorbed into the sweeping conclusion of the book and her borderline-psychosis was just accepted for what it was. Didn’t work for me.

Overall: 3 stars. This was a *pretty good* domestic thriller and one that many mothers — first time or otherwise — will certainly appreciate, though organization was wobbly at times.

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I received an advanced copy of The Perfect Mother from Harper Books in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts above belong to me, myself, & I. Thanks to the publisher for the free review copy!