Disobedience begins with a powerful moment of choice. One day seventeen-year-old Henry accidentally enters his mother’s e-mail password when starting his browser. He finds at least one message already waiting to be read. Here the choice he makes is almost by reflex. He reads the message and discovers that his mother is in the midst of an adulterous affair with a musician friend. The first ethical decision he faces is simple: Should he read a message not meant for him? An even more important ethical question is raised after he reads that first message. Now he has crossed a moral divide. Should he continue to read the messages, though? This quandary triggers the plot of the novel. What are the consequences of a young man’s knowledge of his mother’s adultery? How will that knowledge affect his psychological and emotional development?
This novel is not really about the moral conundrums raised by the advent of digital technology. The author uses the e-mail reference as a way to help the reader enter the story and encounter the musings of a troubled young man. The book is not a record of the correspondence between his mother and her lover or his mother and her friends. Only a few messages are included in the text. The purpose of the novel is to record the young man’s painful recollections of how he survived his mother’s short-lived (less than a year) adulterous affair, as viewed from his perspective at least ten years after the fact.
The title of the book suggests a major theme at work in the story. Henry equates his mother’s adultery to an act of disobedience against the rules that, in his mind, govern the family unit. His mother disobeyed her marriage vows and thus betrayed her husband. More important, she disobeyed her vows to her children, and especially to her son. Henry repeatedly underscores the special basis of his relationship to his mother. He was the first child, and he remembers his mother coming into his room and giving him a sense of security and love by her nearness. Henry also notes how the arrival of the second child, his sister, Elvira, shifted the elemental basis of this mother-son bond.
After the affair begins, Henry’s mother goes to a psychic. He learns from an e-mail message that the psychic claimed that Henry and his mother were once married in a former life. Henry is so taken by this image of their bond in a former life that he revisits the psychic on his own and tries to gain some clarification about this former life. At one point he imagines breaking her—a violent metaphor—in order to conceive of her as a lover of another man. In that metaphor of separation, he sees then a way to control his mother, like a puppeteer controlling his creation. He plays God. He reads their messages and he judges them—but at what cost to his emotional development?
The mother-son split is also indicated by a special way Henry refers to his mother in his novel. Sometimes he refers to her as “mother,” but when he speaks of her in the context of her love affair with Richard Polloco, he calls her “Mrs. Shaw,” as if he stands apart from her, a remote and unremitting judge. In this way he has also broken her, split her into two identities, one reflecting the mother-son bond, the other representing his mother’s disobedience and betrayal.
His mother’s affair was a complex and unpredictable shift in the basis of her identity and her sense of self. She did fall in love, but she never lost sight of her allegiance to her family unit. She was split into two complementary opposites—a woman who had a home with her lover and a woman who had a home with her family. Through it all, however, her son proves an unstable and unforgiving witness of what he can only consider her misdeeds, and begins to withdraw from human companionship. Instead, he embraces his story, or “his-story,” as a kind of refuge, a place of security and control over the complexities of life. He feels less lonely and less empty when he reviews the story, when he compiles the history. Long after he left home, he returned to the story as source material for a film school project, and for years afterward he has revisited his printed copies of the e-mails and reread them as if to find new answers in the archive.
Most of the action in the novel concerns the story of Henry’s sister, Elvira. Her passion is Civil War reenactments. She dresses authentically and plays her part as if she were a young man by the name of Elvirnon. Henry believes his mother is disappointed with Elvira’s conduct. He thinks Elvira’s disobedience is based on her turning her back on the conventional image of womanhood her mother expected her to embrace. In fact, the climactic action of the novel revolves around Elvira’s...
(The entire section is 1933 words.)