The Mother Act: A Novel

Image of The Mother Act: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 30, 2024
Reviewed by: 

"an enthralling and believable story."

This debut novel bravely digs into the conflicted relationship between a mother and daughter—the actress and feminist icon Sadie Jones and her estranged daughter, Jude, now an actress in her own right. In alternating narratives spanning nearly three decades, The Mother Act explores their different paths through anger, pain, rebellion, ambition, failure, betrayal, and love.

It's an enthralling and believable story. Unfortunately, author Heidi Reimer relies too much on stereotypes and ciphers, in a novel that demands strong, original, full-fledged characters.

Sadie: brash, charismatic, and larger-than-life but disguising a deeper vulnerability. Jude: the insecure daughter overwhelmed by her brash, charismatic, and larger-than-life mother.

“When we’re alone together, I’m exhausted by her relentless prattle and hyperaware that I fall into the category of ‘boring’ in her eyes,” 18-year-old Jude thinks about Sadie, as she begins her first acting role outside of her father’s small, Shakespearian touring company. “Our conversations consist of her grilling me, eventually giving up, then talking at length about herself.”

In a book centered on actresses, the parts are already cast: Shelley Winters or Rosalind Russell (posthumously) as Sadie, and Anne Hathaway (reprising The Devil Wears Prada) as Jude.

The teenager who will become Sadie Jones actually began life in a rigidly traditional and religious family where a woman was expected to wear “a flowing ankle-length skirt.” Just as her mother is giving birth to her tenth child, Sadie runs away to New York.

There she establishes the New York Feminist Guerrilla Theater Collective, which stages pop-up performances throughout the city—perhaps on the sidewalk outside a corporate headquarters, or between benches in Washington Square Park. This theater group is one of the most charming aspects of the novel.

Sadie and the more mainstream young British actor Damian Linnen fall desperately in love, brushing past obstacles such as his engagement to another woman and her inner (and overly prolonged) debate about whether this relationship violates her feminist principles.

With funding secured for what she hopes will be her breakout film, Sadie seems to be on the cusp of career success. Then she finds herself pregnant with Jude.

“I became a mother and discovered rage,” is how she describes that traumatic turn of her life in what is her real breakout, a one-woman show entitled The Mother Act. That script continues: “Some moments—there are moments, no, whole days and weeks, when I hate my child.”

Reimer, a writing coach and essayist, does an excellent job of interweaving the nonlinear timelines and alternating narrators.

There are also fascinating insights into the art of acting. Thinking about her father’s ongoing love for Sadie, Jude muses, “It’s the actor in him . . . He has to be able to understand and inhabit the perspective of any character.”

Since roughly half the book is devoted to Sadie’s point of view, there should be plenty of space for the author, similarly, to flesh out and “inhabit the perspective” of this character. Indeed, Sadie’s first 18 months of miserable motherhood are vividly and sympathetically described. Jude won’t stop crying or take a bottle, and the one time Sadie tries to take her on a playdate, the little girl ends up “throwing herself to the floor, kicking her bare feet against the hardwood, shrieking.”

Still, sleep-deprived new moms throughout the world struggle every day with toddlers who fling their food onto the floor and refuse to wear mittens. Sadie’s travails aren’t uniquely horrific enough, nor is she portrayed in enough depth, for the reader to understand the fulcrum of the plot, why she walked out on her daughter and husband for six years.

Jude, meanwhile, is annoyingly clueless and passive. As for the menfolk—Damian and Jude’s husband, Miles—they are merely supporting actors, two nice guys who seem to love their wives no matter what.