The Good Mother

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Even the most attentive and conscientious parents make mistakes. A mother leaves her three-year-old child safely asleep in the backseat of a parked car and goes inside a house to do an errand which takes a little longer than she anticipates. When she returns, she finds her child awake, weeping, distraught at the mother’s absence. The mother is forever haunted by guilt, the child by fear of abandonment. Anna Dunlap makes this particular error in the opening pages of Sue Miller’s stunning first novel, The Good Mother. Anna is devoted to her daughter, Molly, but circumstances, societal pressures, and Anna’s own character contribute to a breaking of the vital connection between mother and daughter, leaving both irreparably damaged. Miller’s characters are drawn with compassion, her writing is brilliant, and the questions her novel raises are timely and painful. Because of these strengths, The Good Mother is a deeply disturbing book.

At the time of the story’s telling, Anna, the narrator and protagonist, works in the admissions office at Wellesley College. Her daughter, Molly, is seven years old. Anticipating without revealing the events of the plot, Anna recounts her own and Molly’s recent past, beginning at the time of Anna’s divorce, when Molly is three. The style of Anna’s narration mirrors the style of her mothering—careful, intelligent, responsive to apparently insignificant details. She sees clearly that she is “the medium [Molly] lived in, as familiar to her, as taken for granted, as air and food.” Later she compares her commitment to her child to an artist’s commitment to art. In her own view and in that of the reader, Anna is a good mother, continually “monitoring and correcting. . . Molly’s confusion” about her parents’ amicable divorce, about the arrangements for Anna to have custody and for Molly’s father to have regular visitation rights. Mother and daughter will share an apartment in Cambridge; Anna will give piano lessons and work part-time in a laboratory, and Molly will be in full-time day care.

After the opening chapter, which establishes the essentials of Anna’s character and relationship to Molly, the narrative moves backward chronologically to an account of Anna’s own childhood. Occupying several chapters, this account explores the development of her personality through her relationships with her mother and her mother’s family, especially Aunt Babe. Anna’s mother, known to her parents and siblings as Bunny, enjoys a “self-satisfied certitude in her correct mothering.” In keeping with her father’s dominant values of achievement and success, Bunny is ambitious for her daughter. She decides that Anna will become a musician and starts her with piano lessons at age five. Lessons, music camp, and the discipline of practicing become the means through which Anna’s mother expresses love, the daughter’s success as a musician the condition of the mother’s and grandfather’s approval. When it becomes clear that Anna’s technical proficiency cannot compensate for her lack of genuine talent and that she will never be more than competent at the piano—she will be a piano teacher rather than a pianist—Bunny regards herself and her daughter as failures. She withdraws from Anna, now in early adolescence, leaving her in passive confusion about her sexuality—the passivity fostered by the mother’s dominance, the confusion by the family’s disapproving silence concerning Aunt Babe.

Bunny’s striking youngest sister, Babe, was born late in their parents’ marriage and is only five years older than her niece Anna. Separated by their ages both from the adults and from the children in the extended family, which gathers each summer at the grandparents’ camp in Maine, Anna and Babe grow into comrades. At nineteen Babe becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is sent to Europe to have and give up her baby. Although Babe tells Anna what is happening to her, the adults never openly discuss these events, so Anna remains confused about their significance until she reaches adulthood. Even as a child, Anna senses that Babe thumbs her nose at the family values of success and achievement, and she envies her aunt’s wildness. Too passive and approval-seeking to emulate what she so much admires, Anna realizes years later that Babe’s lack of restraint, her openness, her contempt for convention are exactly the qualities to which Anna is attracted in Leo Cutter.

Leo enters Anna’s life when she has been divorced for a year or so. He is an artist, gifted as a painter in a way Anna is not gifted as a pianist. The two meet in a Cambridge laundromat, and, several months after their tentative first encounter, they become lovers. Drawn to Anna’s “withholding cool quality”—just as her father was drawn to her mother—Leo offers Anna the transforming power of “passionate intensity.” The phrase from W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” resonates with meanings that include but are not limited to sexual desire: “I felt I’d been traveling all my life to meet him, to be released by him,” Anna says. “It was what Babe had promised me,. . . what music had promised me: another version of myself, another model for...

(The entire section is 2135 words.)