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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

Although “Terrific Mother” follows Adrienne’s life for almost a year, the dominant event in the story takes place at a Labor Day barbecue, at which she is involved in an accident that results in a baby’s death. When the picnic table on which Adrienne is sitting collapses, she lets go...

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Although “Terrific Mother” follows Adrienne’s life for almost a year, the dominant event in the story takes place at a Labor Day barbecue, at which she is involved in an accident that results in a baby’s death. When the picnic table on which Adrienne is sitting collapses, she lets go of the child she is holding, inadvertently causing its death. Adrienne becomes devastated by guilt. This guilt is exacerbated by the fact that, shortly before this event, friends advised Adrienne that she should have her own baby because she would make a fine mother. Suffering a numbing depression, Adrienne retreats into her attic apartment for seven months, taking pains to avoid contact with people.

Martin Porter, a professor in economics, attempts to wrest her from Adrienne solitude and eventually convinces her to marry him, although she feels that her role in the baby’s death has made her a pariah unfit for normal life. Martin wins a scholarship that allows him and his spouse to spend a month in a luxurious mountain villa in northern Italy. There, amid other academics and their partners, he revises a book, and Adrienne is given a studio to pursue her artwork. Much of the story takes place over mealtimes at the resort, occasions during which Adrienne meets numerous scholars, most of whom are self-absorbed specialists. She is not taken seriously by the academics because of her status as a spouse. Obsessed by the earlier accident with the baby, Adrienne cannot do much in her studio except kill spiders, and dissatisfied with the pretension she encounters at the villa, she grows restless and begins visiting Ilke, a masseuse who has been recommended by a fellow spouse at the villa.

Becoming aware of her body once again, Adrienne discovers that her time with the masseuse also takes her deeply within her psyche, and she repeatedly returns for more of the therapeutic sessions. Under the trancelike state of mind created by the masseuse’s hands, Adrienne recalls her parents’ deaths, ponders loss, and ruminates on her childlessness and her ambivalent feelings about her marriage. Strengthened by self-awareness and less self-conscious than when she first arrived at the villa, Adrienne eventually adopts a position of playfully aggressive irony when conversing with the other guests. As the month progresses, however, Adrienne begins to feel estranged from her husband, who seems completely at ease with his academic colleagues and the esoteric intellectual atmosphere at the retreat.

After one particularly intense massage and then an annoying encounter with a tarot card reader, Adrienne wanders off to a meadow, where she removes her clothes. Resting, she imagines that she has crossed into the underworld, and when a tourist guide interrupts her reverie, Adrienne momentarily confuses the elderly woman for a somewhat ludicrous looking spiritual guide. At the end of the story, Adrienne surprises Martin with her knowledge that he has been secretly visiting Ilke, an act that, to her, constitutes a kind of betrayal. From Adrienne’s perspective, Martin has trespassed on the intense privacy and spiritual sojourn she experienced with the masseuse. During this marital confrontation, Adrienne experiences an epiphany when she suddenly perceives all of her dead reflected in the eyes of her largely misunderstood husband, and she recognizes that she must ask both them and him for forgiveness.

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