A few months back, author Steve Almond did a piece on NPR’s Here and Now on the emerging branch of memoir dedicated to bad parenting. Among the works he discussed were Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother and Diana Joseph’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. As you might guess, what all of these works have in common is a sense of sympathy toward mothers who act in a way that may, at times, seem selfish and which reveals a certain degree of ambivalence toward motherhood. One of the points Almond made in his piece was that these books are emerging at a time when many mothers have grown tired of reading about their perfect counterparts–women who can do it all for the sake of their children and who never have any regrets, second thoughts, or curiosity about what might have been if they never had children.
This genre represents somewhat of a risk in that it calls into question one of the great myths of our (and almost any) time: the idea that mothers are selfless individuals who only act with their children’s best interests at heart. Yet while “confessing” to bad mothering in the form of a memoir may be risky, conjuring such mothers for the sake of fiction may be more so. It’s one thing for the memoirist to admit to past “mistakes” or missteps (and, in so doing, perhaps tacitly beg the reader’s forgiveness), but it’s entirely another thing for an author to knowingly invent a character who egregiously violates some of our most deep-seated social taboos. (The problem, I think, is that some readers tend to mistake description for prescription, storytelling for advocacy.) Case in point, Amy Boaz’s Beat.
In Beat, Boaz presents the story of Frances, a wife and mother who has absconded to Paris with her young daughter, Cathy. Frances, it turns out, is tired of the safe, boring life she’s been leading with her husband and wishes, instead, to shack up with a poet of some small renown. Wandering the streets of Paris, Frances continually plots a reunion with said poet while alternating between wishing her daughter would stop complaining and wondering what it would be like to be a completely free woman.
In one deliciously devious passage, the narrator reports, “We pass under a Roman archway with three thick columns. I enter first; on a sudden, inexplicable impulse, a wicked, vengeful whim, I slip behind one of the columns to hide myself… She shoots frantic glances left and right. How long do I remain hidden? My eyes are glued to her rigid form. Some seconds, not many, but enough to scare her, enough to scare me.” The thing that gets me about this passage is that Frances comes through as so utterly conflicted–and thus so utterly human. On one hand, she toys with the idea of losing her daughter in a crowd, of scaring her daughter into realizing that Frances is her only lifeline, but on the other hand, she reels at the prospect of losing her daughter. This tension builds throughout the novel, and even as we shake our heads at all of the narrator’s misguided thinking (not to mention her ongoing romanticization of her relationship with the poet), we also can’t help rooting her on–or, at the very least, turning the page to see what sticky situation she gets herself into next.
All told, Beat presents a fascinating investigation of motherhood in the context of a botched extramarital affair. Boaz brings the streets of Paris to life as deftly as she conjures her flawed characters, and her humane investigation of the misguided obsessions that drive us all to some degree or another make this a brave, heartfelt, intelligent novel. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever felt torn between doing the right thing and doing what feels good. Which is to say, recommended for everyone.
(And if you want more “bad parenting,” check out The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl!)