Tag Archives: motherhood

LOOK HOW HAPPY I’M MAKING YOU by Polly Rosenwaike

The short story collection Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike is a kaleidoscope of perspectives on motherhood. The collection roughly follows a chronology, starting with the first story about a woman who is trying to get pregnant and sees the same cute baby on the bus every morning en route to work. Other stories feature women who are pregnant but don’t want to be, women who get pregnant unintentionally, women contemplating single motherhood, new mothers with postpartum depression, women who have lost their mothers.

Rosenwaike’s perspective is fresh and honest, reflecting the often conflicting feelings women have at these points of transition in their lives. The women are smart and funny, emotional and real. This is not a book extolling the magic and mystery of motherhood, but one that puts the experience of parenting through several lenses to get at the many emotions it inspires.

I don’t usually like short stories that much because I find them unsatisfying in terms of character development. This collection overcomes that challenge a bit – the women in these stories are pretty similar, leading to the impression that this is the same character going through all of these different experiences. A degree of continuity throughout the book sets it apart from other story collections. The end result is a look at motherhood that, while not linear, covers a lot of ground.

I especially loved the last story, which made me gasp in recognition.

Someday we will tell you this story. How helpless we felt, how weak, how unprepared, how we couldn’t imagine you falling asleep on your own – and for years you’ve been doing it: lying down in your bed in the dark and trusting that soon the darkness will overtake you. It will please you to hear this, the way it’s pleasing to think of oneself as a baby: tiny, goofy, not quite yourself. To think of your parents younger, uninitiated, baffled by parenthood, people in their own right.

I am a few years past many of the the experiences Rosenwaike addresses in Look How Happy I’m Making You, but her expressive, accessible writing is evocative and insightful, deftly drawing me right back into those years. I really liked this collection and look forward to what Rosenwaike writes next – hopefully a novel so I can delve more deeply.

This book satisfied the short stories category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

AFTER BIRTH by Elisa Albert

After Birth by Elisa Albert is a biting, raw book about motherhood, childbirth and friendship. Ari is a new mom with a year-old son who has recently relocated from Brooklyn to upstate NY with her academic husband. After Birth is really two books – one that focuses on Ari’s son’s birth and one that traces the relationships in her life from her childhood to the present. (She’s pretty angry about all of it.)

On motherhood, Ari is ambivalent, to say the least. She loves her son Walker, but she is physically and emotionally scarred from his birth, which was an unexpected C-section. She blames her doctor for rushing her into a C-section and cannot seem to get over it. She feels that both she and her baby were damaged by the birth and talks about it in incredibly angry, visceral terms. She also describes the days and months of new motherhood (during which she was clearly suffering from post-partum depression) and the isolation and loneliness that often accompany that period.

I found Ari’s anger a little much. I had 2 C-sections and I am not angry about them in the least. Yes, motherhood is challenging, especially in the early months. Yes, breastfeeding is really painful. No, people aren’t always sympathetic about how hard it can be to be a new mom. Yes, motherhood takes a toll on one’s professional ambition. I get all of that. I just had a hard time with the intensity of her anger. No one told her any of this before she had her baby?

On the relationships in her life, Ari got much more interesting. Her (really awful) mother, who died when she was in middle school, her judgmental Bridezilla cousin, the girls with whom she shared intense friendships and flameouts – Ari’s analysis of these women was pretty entertaining. I understood her anger here better than in the motherhood part. There’s a current friendship in the book – probably the closest After Birth gets to a plot – with Mina, a feminist former musician-now-poet who is temporarily living in town and who just had a baby.  Ari and Mina become fast friends when Ari helps Mina cope with her own hellish introduction into motherhood (in part by nursing Mina’s baby when Mina’s baby isn’t latching well). But Mina moves away before the book ends, so there’s no promise of a really lasting, redemptive relationship here.

After Birth is short on plot, long on anger and a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of reviewers have hailed it as a feminist manifesto on motherhood that addresses issues that too many women don’t speak out about. Ok, fine – I get it – but I didn’t really enjoy reading this book very much and had a hard time relating to quite a bit of it.

THE RED THREAD by Ann Hood


I picked up The Red Thread by Ann Hood because it is about a few subjects that I am always interested in: motherhood, infertility, and adoption (specifically adoption from China). The book centers around Maya, who runs an adoption agency specializing in Chinese adoption based in Providence, RI (another plus for me, because I went to college there). Maya lost her own baby daughter many years earlier, and the adoption work is her attempt at redemption. (She couldn’t save her own daughter, but she can save many others.)

The chapters rotate among several other characters who are each part of a couple applying to adopt a daughter through Maya’s agency. Each couple has a reason for why they have turned to adoption – infertility, fear of passing along a genetic disease, etc. – and the book traces what brought them to the point of choosing adoption through the process of applying for and being matched with a daughter from China. There are also stories spread throughout the book about mothers (and one father) who gave up their daughters in China for adoption. Those are the babies who end up being matched with the couples in Rhode Island.

So, the good: I liked the couples’ stories, and found the stories set in China to be very sad but compelling. Hood’s writing was generally fine, and the depiction of miscarriage, infertility, and loss of children seemed genuine.

The not so good: the stories were a little pat, tying up too neatly at the end. And some of the prose is ridden with cliches. I don’t know that Hood had anything particularly original to say in The Red Thread. Maya herself was a bit hard to believe – on the one hand she was so capable and sympathetic (though she tended to dismiss her clients’ concerns rather than actually help them work through them), and on the other she was a mess. Some of the other couples didn’t really make sense either, especially one where the husband and wives switched positions on adoption simultaneously (why?!). Also, I have friends who have adopted from China, and the process is MUCH more sped up in The Red Thread than in reality. (Hood’s couples got their babies within a year!)

I enjoyed this book mostly because of the subject matter. I don’t recommend it unless you want to learn more about the process of international adoption, and particularly Chinese adoption, or are otherwise interested in the subject matter. Otherwise you may be disappointed with the cliches and somewhat shallow storytelling.

THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. by Nichole Bernier


The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., by first-time novelist Nichole Bernier, explores what happens when one best friend really learns about the other – posthumously – by reading her journals. How well do we really understand the people around us? And what do they really think of us?

Elizabeth is a mother of three in her late thirties who perishes in a plane crash shortly before 9/11. Her best friend Kate, who used to live near her in Connecticut but now lives in D.C., is bequeathed Elizabeth’s trunk full of journals in Elizabeth’s will. En route to spending the summer with her husband and kids at the beach, Kate picks up the journals from Elizabeth’s husband, who tells her that Elizabeth had been keeping a secret before she died. Her flight – the one that went down – was en route to California, where her husband suspected she was meeting a secret lover.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is about Kate’s experience reading Elizabeth’s journals and learning about what brought Elizabeth to the point of taking that flight. The journals, which started when Elizabeth was in middle school, reveal a lot about Kate’s best friend that she didn’t know, and which paint her as a much more flawed and conflicted woman than the supermom Kate knew Elizabeth to be. And the journals raise in Kate a lot of the same feelings of conflict and identity that Elizabeth described in her journals. I don’t want to give away any more than that in terms of the plot.

I was very impressed with Bernier’s writing. From the little domestic details she peppered throughout the book to the spot-on depictions of parenting and the natural dialogue between spouses – Bernier really nailed it all.  There is a twist at the end that I found underexplored and hastily added, but otherwise I think Bernier did a good job of testing the limits of friendship and loyalty, and asking how far we are willing to go to change ourselves into the person we feel we need to be to make those around us happy.

I was also especially moved by Bernier’s depiction of life after 9/11, and in particular life in Washington, DC after 9/11. I live in Washington, and remember those anxiety-filled years of anthrax scares and the feeling of living in a bullseye of danger. The undercurrent of paranoia and fatalism that ran through Kate’s thoughts was a familiar one.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. was a very good read, especially given that it was Bernier’s first novel.  Thank you to Crown Publishers for the review copy.

SWEET RUIN by Cathi Hanauer

First, a final reminder about the first EDIWTB online book club. Hyperion has generously agreed to send review copies of A Middle Place, which I wrote about here, to anyone who’d like to read it.  A few weeks after we’ve all received the book, I’ll post a review of it here, and those who have read it will hopefully keep the conversation going in the comments.  I have already submitted a bunch of names to Hyperion, and will send along any more that I receive at gweiswasser@gmail.com in the next day or two. If the book club goes well, I’d like to make it a regular feature – though in the future I will hopefully have more control over picking the book. I appreciate Hyperion’s generous offer, and I hope that other publishers will agree to provide review copies, but I’d also like to choose the books rather than have them determined by which books are sent to me. (Anyone who has been in a book club with me knows that I am a control freak when it comes to picking books!)


Second, I finished a book today that I really liked. If yu’re a guy, you can probably stop reading right here (I know there are some of you out there who are sick of my female protagonists).  Sweet Ruin, by Cathi Hanauer, is a novel about Elayna, a suburban mom in her mid 30s living in a New Jersey suburb outside New York City. She has a 6-year old daughter and also lost a son a few days after he was born. The book opens 2 years after her son’s death, as she is slowly emerging from her fog of grief.  It explores her flawed marriage, her grief and depression, her relationship with her difficult father, her experience as a mother to her daughter Hazel, suburban parenting, and her affair with Kevin, a young man across the street who falls in love with her.

This book was difficult to put down. I love Hanauer’s writing. Her little observations about motherhood and marriage – wow. Familiar territory. It’s not a perfect book – I think that Elayna’s relationship with Kevin isn’t that convincing in the end. But I like that her characters aren’t painted in black and white. No one’s a villain. Hanauer successfully makes most of her characters sympathetic, even when they are fighting with or hurting each other. This is real life in all its messy, unpredictable, ever-changing beauty.

I just read a review of Sweet Ruin at the Mommy Writer Blog. Check it out – I heartily agree with her. This is a highly enjoyable book that’s several steps above chick lit.

I’d love to hear from others who have read this book.