Motherland by Amy Sohn
Amy Sohn must be the most observant person ever. In Motherland she has captured the anxiety, the social climbing, the money worries, the marital dysfunction, the superficiality, the selfishness, the guilt of the privileged Park Slope parents who exemplify our current culture of ideal parenting. The details that she uses to characterize this community made me feel as if I’d lived there for years. The main characters are: Karen, a mother going through a divorce, Marco, a gay recovering alcoholic raising two sons with his partner, Gottlieb, a self-involved screenwriter and father, Rebecca, a mother hiding a secret about her youngest child’s paternity, and Melora, an actress making a comeback on Broadway. Narration switches among these characters, who are connected in strange ways. The characters all do some pretty despicable things, but Sohn somehow makes most of them sympathetic anyway.
The action concentrates in Brooklyn but sometimes travels to a Cape Cod vacation spot or LA for show business subplots. It’s a pretty rarefied, privileged subculture that Sohn is documenting here; the descriptions of the characters’ lifestyles might feel over-the-top and alienating to some readers. A lot of Hollywood stars get name-dropped, but I didn’t really mind because the names were so precisely chosen and so up-to-the-minute current–they gave exactly the message that they were meant to. Sohn has her finger so tight on the pop culture pulse that she can use these references to show Melora’s and Gottlieb’s exact career trajectory, so that we understand their rises and falls in relation to other stars.
I loved the sex scenes in this book. They were so unusual, so unique to the situation and the couple, and the acts they portrayed were not always mind-blowing or even satisfying. There was such a wonderful variety of sexual experience represented: good and bad married sex, good and bad one-night stands, gay sex, fetishes, masturbation. We get to see the characters surprised by what sex brings out of them; we get to see them using sex as a tool to reach other goals or as a way to punish each other, or as an escape. Sex is presented as part of life, part of the characters’ relationships, one motivating force among many, rather than an all-consuming, static holy grail. This approach to writing sex is so much more realistic and interesting than the typical idealized erotica scene.
Given the title, it was surprising to me how little this book talked about the actual work of parenting. The children seemed like props, driving the plot through creating stress for the parents, rather than like characters in themselves. It’s a book about the relationships parents have with each other, about the problems parenting creates, and the culture that grows up around it, but not about parenting itself. When I’m a mother, I’m sure my experience won’t be anything like these characters’, and despite twinges of jealousy for their resources and cultural influence, I think I’m mostly glad about that.
The book is really funny, and Sohn’s sentences are fun to read. She reveals the absurdity in everyday life, and it comes out in the characters’ irrational but totally understandable thoughts and actions. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and felt pretty immersed in its world.