The Book of Mother
“In this debut, Huisman has already given her readers a richly textured portrait of an enthralling woman you might love as a dinner companion—but never as your mother.”
Maman—the mother of this book’s title—is a force of nature to her four husbands, two daughters, countless lovers, friends, and extended family. One minute she’s telling her daughters that they’re “a pair of pathetic little spoiled-rotten brats”; the next minute, she’s covering them with kisses and begging them, “forgive me, please, I love you more than anything, you’re my adored darlings.”
“She was sublime, she was divine,” says the narrator, her younger daughter. “Poor Maman, she could spin like a top on the tips of her toes without ever losing her balance, but she couldn’t put one foot in front of the other without stumbling in the dance of daily life.”
Within the narrator’s first 10 years, Maman (aka Catherine Cremnitz) leaves the narrator’s father, marries the dad of her daughters’ classmates, loses a half-dozen pets (at least one of which she deliberately kills), starts and then burns down a dance studio, reports her third husband to the police for fraud, becomes bankrupt, and is committed to “the paragon of psychiatric asylums in France.”
Then, about two-fifths through the novel, the narrator decides to rewrite the story. Abruptly switching styles, she drops her intense, first-person scattering of anecdotes and proceeds to relate what she imagines was her mother’s pre-marriage life in a calmer, third-person, straight-line tale. “I had to become the narrator of her story,” the daughter explains, “in order to give her back her humanity.”
Both sections are fascinating in different ways.
Part One grabs the reader with its passion, beautifully translated by Leslie Camhi, with only a couple of stumbles.
To some degree, this Maman is a cliché, the over-the-top, half-mad, Dostoyevskian protagonist. Happily, author Violaine Huisman fleshes out that cliché with some wonderful quirks. Maman and her wealthy husband “had the habit of swiping prescription pads during visits to the doctor,” for instance, so that they can self-medicate as they desired.
Part Two is more conventionally engrossing. According to this version, Maman (now referred to as Catherine) was an accidental pregnancy, after her strictly Catholic mother, the daughter of a working-class Parisian hairdresser, was raped in a one-night stand with a handsome pimp. Little Catherine is so sickly that she is confined to a hospital for three years. Even after she’s released, no one really wants her, not her mother, not her grandparents, not her step-grandparents.
Through force of will and “her astonishing beauty,” Catherine overcomes that miserable childhood plus a serious limp to become a dancer and choreographer.
Her life finally seems set in middle-class contentment when she marries Paul, a sweet young clerk from Marseille. But within a few years, Catherine is seduced by the powerful, grand bourgeois businessman Antoine into a wild world of designer clothes, heedless spending, sex in all formats, first-class travel, and gluttonous gourmet meals.
Like her own mother, Catherine becomes pregnant accidentally. Vowing “that she’s not going to repeat her mother’s mistakes,” she focuses her Vesuvius of passion on her new baby and the daughter who comes later.
Of course, each generation of mothers makes its own mistakes. In the end, Catherine’s are probably less damaging than those of her mother, step-grandmother, and mother-in-law.
The Book of Mother toys a bit with the boundary between fact and fiction. The narrator has the same first name and birth year as the author, and both were raised in Paris and now live in Brooklyn.
After these absorbing sections, the brief Part Three is a letdown, a dribble of more examples of Maman’s craziness and unhappiness, puddling into her death. It’s not really necessary. In this debut, Huisman has already given her readers a richly textured portrait of an enthralling woman you might love as a dinner companion—but never as your mother.