Review of Mothers and Lovers by Maria Flook
Roundabout Press, 2014
1. Reading Mothers and Lovers for me was like experiencing an odd nightmare.
2. Mothers and Lovers, the title like signage for a carnival funhouse in a relentless dream, an invitation to see the ugly and fantastical.
3. The spellcheck on my computer changed “Flook” to “Look”— the irony for this book that doesn’t let you look away from the harshness of abuse and damage people inflict on one another.
4. If only abuse were only metaphorical. If only Flook made it easier for readers to look away. I think this accounts for the pile-up of metaphors in this novel.
5. And the direct sentence structure she employs. Direct sentences that leave no room for interpretation. Some might call this not having faith in the reader, but maybe it is a deliberate way to make the reader feel railroaded through an experience: “The boy turned to look in her direction. He was giving her the up and down. He didn’t have a greeting. This was what she had to deal with.”
6. The abuse is tough to handle. We get a small bit of it through April O’Rourke, in whose perspective we spend much of the novel: “A doctor, when looking at an MRI, might be able to notice the little drink in her vertebrae, but she was relieved to know that any residue of her father’s touch couldn’t be documented on x-ray film or magnetic images.” Later we read about Blaze Townsend’s abuse, whose perspective we also spend much time in, and his mother, Janice Gallen.
7. Flook continues to make her point about language throughout the novel. Sinclair College is a mythical college (with email addresses that end with edu).
8. And East Westerly, Rhode Island is also a place Flook creates for her novel. (“Its comic oppositional name…was its most famous distinction…If someone ‘went off his rocker,” or had ‘lost his marbles,” Rhode Islanders would often say, ‘He’s gone “East Westerly.”)
9. Flook makes the point several times, directly, that language is slippery, fluid, false: “This was academic jargon. ‘Gone in a different direction,’ was a polite way of saying a sensible decision had been opposed for no good reason.”
10. Language is also relief and comfort. April is an academic, an English professor, and the way her lovers use language attracts her to them.
11. For Blaze, the sexually abused teenager, language is something he’s trying to decipher, learn to use, particularly taking advice from his father: “Blaze knew that his father didn’t like irony, but he liked word-play. He had told Blaze that in the day-today-grind wordplay was a succor and it was good for his son to learn how it’s done.”
12. We’re told repeatedly that the house April bought from the Townsends was built in the style of Greek Revival architecture (winking towards Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex)
13. To add to the nightmarish Greek tragedy atmosphere, animals in this book are abused or maimed: “The dogs, weaving in and out of his legs, were pests. Their unbridled joys reminded Blaze of his own furies, and he didn’t like the gang-up. He kicked the brindle in its rib cage. It yelped and shrank away, then turned around. It crawled back and forth in the first as it inched forward, wanting love any which way.”
14. And “Townsend’s other horse was a golden sorrel with a big white splash on its face as if it had just been struck by a snowball, right between the eyes. Its white face was pretty but this horse had a deformed leg. It might have suffered a broken bone that had never been set, and its shortened hind leg gave it a stuttered gait, its hindquarters sinking lower, like a hyena.”
15. Animals are metaphors for people in Flook’s novel. The boy Blaze is compared to the maimed horse, Jack. Flook writes that Blaze is named for a horse his father gave his mother as a gift. The twist is that the mother tried to outwit the father by naming the horse Jack, the name the father wanted for his child, before the child was born. As revenge, the father gives the baby a horse’s name. “Janice insisted the horse be sold but Jack remained in the family, even after the accident and its leg was maimed. It was a survivor, despite a bitter joke. It became their disabled mascot, a harbinger of their crippled marriage.”
16. Mirhege’s daughter is a caged bird trapped by the strings of the harp.
17. And April O’Rourke is a ‘pet’ to Holt Townsend, Blaze’s father.
18. Like every nightmare, Greek tale, carnival sideshow, people are perceived as part-animal, part-human: “The newcomer wore a one-piece outfit of tight pink pleather. Her boots were leopard fur wedgies—as if she were walking on two severed paws.” The brutality permeates.
19. There is the seen, unseen quality of a nightmare at work in the novel too. What did you really see? What’s there one moment is gone the next. People are desperate to be seen by each other while they also fear it. April wants to be seen in public with her lover, Fielding Mirhege, then she moves to East Westerly to avoid being seen. Mike Black, April’s dead boyfriend’s lover, stalks April in order to make himself known to her and then finally arrives at her door.
20. Flook seems to be pointing to the healing power of being exposed, the power of being seen by those who matter most to a person. Exposure is what heals or makes people face consequences. Whether it’s the physical abuse that Janice can’t cover up with jumpsuits and sunglasses from John Two, the sexual abuse Janice inflicts on her teenage son, or the pain Mike Black feels: “Anonymity was worse. It cuts deeper, stings longer than loneliness. Loneliness stems from a togetherness that’s been uprooted. For some reason Riley had not cemented the togetherness connection with Mike Black.”
21. Though April is the one in whose perspective we spend the majority of the book, she is a surrogate. To my mind, Janice Gallen is the true mother of horrific mothers. April feels drawn to her, to be seen by her, romanticizes Janice’s story of how her mother died in blue snow. But it’s Janice who speaks with harshness, “He (Blaze) leaned closer to look at her text book contusions. ‘I don’t want your opinion,’ she said. ‘You don’t look too good yourself. You’re white as a chink whore.’” An odd thing to say to her son. Maybe something that was said to her? Her direct seduction of her son is the most shocking scene in the book and binds him to her, upending his life.
22. Other nightmarish things in this novel: death by endless pool, the encroaching toxic sludge pile/fertilizer, stone babies from ectopic pregnancies.
23. But what persists for me, long after finishing the book, are the images Flook developed slowly, like the moments in a nightmare when you think things will turn out fine after all, those glimmers of hope: a woman reaching out of a rowboat for a picnic basket afloat in a pond; the cutting of a harp’s strings; a woman pushing a man’s clothes through an open hotel window to an empty courtyard below.
24. April’s survivalist attitude, her yearning to be loved, her ability to accept second-best sometimes, her quest in her imagination to invent headlines where she is the star of a gruesome death make her a hero in a story that doesn’t have many heroes. She is desperate to matter. She remains a surrogate, opens the door to— but doesn’t step through to— perpetuating abuse.
25. And April gets the final word: “The freak horse was dead-still, cheek to earth, its legs stiff. The vultures rode the air drafts, their circles sinking closer. The vision was heartbreaking, but April had invented it. The horse stood up, shaking its withers.’”
Jimin Han’s writing can be found online at NPR’s “Weekend America”, Entropy, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, The Good Men Project, and KoreanAmericanStory. Her work also appears in Kartika Review and The Nuyorasian Anthology. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and lives outside New York City with her husband and children. Find her on twitter @jiminhanwriter