Jayne Anne Phillips is a fiction writer who has covered a lot of artistic ground in her career. A writer of experimental short stories and of traditionally narrated novels, she has often focused on the experiences of women—young women, older women—as they move through the worlds of family and work and men. She is also a writer frequently linked to the landscape of her native West Virginia, setting most of her fiction in that region. In her novel Motherkind Phillips tells a story at once familiar and unfamiliar to her readers.

This work centers on Katherine (“Kate”) Tateman, a 31-year-old editor and writer living outside of Boston. She is pregnant and living with the father of this child, who has brought his own two sons into the relationship following a divorce. One strand of Phillips’s story follows this pregnancy through to the birth of the child—a son, Alexander—and to the eventual marriage of Kate and her lover, Matt. Phillips does a wonderful job of probing the inner-world of her protagonist, exposing the tensions that beset Kate as she anticipates and considers motherhood.

Those tensions are heightened by the story contained in the other primary strand of the novel, that of Kate’s dying mother, who is also named Katherine. In fact, Phillips structures her novel so that while readers read of the “present” situation (the pregnancy, the birth, the marriage), readers alternately read the recollected story of...

(The entire section is 489 words.)