Following on from my last post, I’ve now finished reading The Mothers’ Group. The sheer volume of positive reviews spurred me on, and it is quite an easy read, one that I managed in a couple of days (days that included a terrifying afternoon at Intencity with 15 of Lily’s friends).
My thoughts on the story come with some (major) spoilers, so I’m going to sneaky them away behind this ‘Continue Reading’ link.
They’re calling it this year’s The Slap. It turns out they just mean that a group of parents do things and then something big happens. It has nothing on The Slap.
When I started reading this book, I tweeted something hilarious like “Is The Mothers’ Group just The Babysitters Club for grown ups?” And I was being facaetious, of course, but it turned out to be closer to the truth than I expected.
We’re given the story more or less chronologically from the perspectives of each of the women in the group. Like a Babysitters Club Super Special. We never get the same woman’s perspective twice, which means we miss out on any of the thoughts they might have had about The Big Event.
Let’s look at the women first.
Ginie (pronounced as genie? ginny?) is rich. And that’s because she works hard as a ‘venture capital lawyer’ – one of only a handful of women doing as much in Sydney, we’re told. Because she’s a working mother – the only one in the group – she is angry and selfish. She met her husband after she fucked him on a beach and then married him six months later, already pregnant. Her husband is great at sex, as he later demonstrates to the nanny in an hilarious cliche.
Pippa is depressed, which is why she is the dowdy one. Her husband works long hours as a builder and doesn’t understand how hard it is to care for a child. And because Pippa is depressed, she is defined by her depression and doesn’t seem to really have a personality at all. Her husband? Great at sex. She is the only one who seemed to wait more than five minutes to marry him, which is funny because she’s also the only one who ends up with someone she actually likes.
Miranda is a step-mother, which means she’s out of control at all times and drinks vodka from an Evian bottle. She loathes her step-son, physically abuses him and then nothing more comes of it. Her husband is an asshole, which she knew when she married him, but the sex is so great that it doesn’t seem to matter.
Suzie is free and easy, as evidenced by her choice of name for her daughter and the fact that she is blonde. Her partner – who was great at sex – left her when she was pregnant. This means she’s now a ditzy, spiritual single mother who is so desperate to get laid that she’ll let a man dominate her in a way that she doesn’t enjoy, and then pay her for the privilege.
Made (pronounced Mah-day) is easily the most interesting of these women, but that is overshadowed by the fact that she is young, Indonesian and speaks broken English in a way that’s spelled out and borderline offensive. “I Made, I Indonesian.” Her husband (guess how great at sex he is?) is much older than her, but kindly. Kindly, like an old man. Her son has a facial disfigurement, but we never really learn more about how that makes anyone feel.
Cara is the bubbly one who is friends with everybody, so of course she is the one to have the disaster happen to her. We know little about her home life or her relationship with her great-at-sex husband, because her perspective isn’t shown until after her daughter has died.
So, the first two-thirds of the book is establishing the group. It tries to play up the friendship between Ginie and Miranda, and the friction between Ginie and Suzie, and the way Cara makes everything better, and the fact that Pippa has no personality, and the way Made is insightful because she is from Asia. Fine.
The last third is when everything happens to everyone and their lives fall apart in quick succession. But we miss so much of their individual stories, because they’re told from another woman’s perspective.
Here’s a summary:
Ginie falls apart because her husband is banging the nanny. Well, he says he isn’t, but no-personality Pippa basically caught him red-handed.
Miranda falls apart because everyone finds out she was drinking straight vodka in the afternoons and she ends up in rehab and also her husband is having an affair with …
… Suzie, who falls apart because she was letting Miranda’s husband more or less pay her for sex.
Pippa falls apart because she is depressed and incontinent, but she picks herself up and dusts herself off and pushes through. This is easier for her because she has no personality.
Cara falls apart because her daughter drowns in a dam while she’s busy flirting with a man who is great at sex and isn’t her husband.
Made doesn’t fall apart because that’s not the Hindu way.
The trouble is, we never see any of the inevitable breakdowns. The author tells us everything in a Cara was sad type way. After the drowning – which to the author’s credit was shocking – we are treated to page after page of a back story that we don’t care about. I found myself turning furiously, looking for the part where we saw Cara grieving. Instead, we are tortured by this extensive overview of the way Cara met a dude at uni and then he got married and later on they spoke while she was in Africa and then she got sad and moved back to Sydney but he was already engaged and then she went to his wedding and then she met him when he helped treat Pippa and then she caught up for a chai and then she kind of flirted with him and they kissed and then he came to the party and Jesus we don’t care about this we just want to know how she feels now. Seriously.
Luckily, the end of the book is coming, and that means everyone patches everything up. Ginie stops being angry with Pippa for telling her about the nanny, because it’s given her a reason to stop being such a workaholic mother (in this world, there are only workaholic mothers and stay-at-home mothers – welcome to the Mummy Wars), and now she’s trying to work things through and ooh! she’s pregnant again, ironically, because she never wanted to have children, and the best way to work on a marriage is to complicate it with another child.
Suzie and Miranda hug at the rehab clinic, and we find out that Miranda is also working on things with her husband, because she is an alcoholic and so also a pushover. Made’s husband loses his job, but instead of exploring how that affects her and their marriage, they just pack up and move to Bali.
And then they take Cara with them. What? Oh! It’s okay, Ginie has some necklaces for everyone, because she’s rich and she can afford to buy them at the expense of her marriage and her relationship with her child. They are phoenixes, because now all these women can rise out of the ashes of their collective atrocities.
This is a book so caught up in representing all of the “things women never admit to about being a mother” that it completely overlooks the actual stories. It tells us that women secretly hate being mothers some times (which is true) and that mothers-in-law sometimes drive us mental (true) and that marriages aren’t always what they seem (true). But it never explores these things any further than just the superficial “I went to Mothers’ Group and pretended everything is perfect but it isn’t”. We never really see Suzie’s struggle as a single parent, or what Made has to deal with because of her son’s disfigurement, or what life is like at the office for Ginie, or what having PND is actually like for Pippa, or how Miranda works on her alcoholism, or how Cara grieves.
To be honest, I found it infuriating. If you’ve ever been on the Essential Baby forums, that’s what reading this book is like. It takes all of the major issues that bring conflict to forums like that one and turns them into a kind of story. Making sure each of these polarising debates ends up in the book seems to take precedent over actually exploring any of the topics in much detail, and on the whole the book is very “tell” and very little “show”.
But then, I am an angry working mother who was once a single mother and had post-natal depression, so maybe I’m being overly sensitive.