The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore is a novel about the experience of pursuing domestic adoption. The would-be parents, Jesse and Ramon, are late thirtysomethings who have struggled with cancer and infertility and are now pinning their hopes for becoming parents on the birthmothers who might select them as adoptive parents for their unborn babies. The novel follows the emotional rollercoaster of applying, waiting, and responding to calls from birthmothers – some legit and some not even real – while trying to keep their hopes in check.
This is a book about the longing for parenthood, especially motherhood. Jesse’s innate desire to be a mom, while so many around her flaunt their swollen bellies and wriggling toddlers, is very poignant. Anyone who has undergone infertility will be able to relate to her feelings of loss, jealousy and bitterness. While some reviews have criticized Jesse for being whiny and unlikeable, I thought Jesse was a pretty realistic portrayal of a woman in her position. It’s hard to be happy for others when everyone else seems to have what you want, and can’t get.
It’s also a book about motherhood in general, told through the depiction of Jesse’s own mother (absentee through her childhood), mother-in-law (suffocating and focused solely on her son) and other women (friends, sister, birthmothers, would-be parents) she comes in contact with. “The Mothers” of the title are these recurring women. Jesse is fixated on what it means to be a mother, and on the type of mother she wants to be, especially as compared to the others she knows.
Some reviews have also criticized The Mothers as being more of a memoir than a novel, and for ending abruptly when Jesse and Ramon reached a turning point in their adoption journey. Both are fair points. As a story, it is compelling and addictive (you want to know whether they will get their happy ending), but it is sort of relentless and ultimately unsatisfying given its premature end. Gilmore is a good writer, but doesn’t always get past the “then this happened, then this happened” format of the book.
I think you probably know by now whether The Mothers is for you or not. If the topic interests you, you’ll probably enjoy this book in spite of its flaws. If you can’t see reading a whole book about domestic adoption, then take a pass. I fall into the former camp, and liked this one quite a bit.