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"On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy," E.B. White once wrote. This was, of course, back before social media and the rise of surveillance culture, but while privacy may not be something that today's New Yorkers (or really people anywhere) have the luxury of, social isolation is still rife in the Big Apple. With so many people from somewhere else, the idea of still having childhood friends or knowing your neighbors can seem almost quaint. And thus the process of making friends (or even casual acquaintances) is really equal parts serendipity and proximity. It's a familiar face at the coffee shop, a chance encounter at the bodega, or, in the case of the women in Aimee Molloy's A PERFECT MOTHER, a message board turned meet-up group organized around a shared interest. And it's this tenuous process that's really at the heart of Molloy's novel: a group of women coming to depend on one another, even though when it gets down to it, they hardly know one another at all.
The May Mothers is a group of new moms (and one dad) who basically only have one thing in common: their children were all born in the same month. Gathering in Brooklyn's Prospect Park every week to swap tips, share the stress of new parenthood, and enjoy some much-needed adult conversation, many of the members come and go. But the core group—stay-at-home Southern transplant Francie, ghost writer of political memoirs Colette, and brash and British IT security specialist Nell—quickly become fast friends. The trio becomes all the more close after a Mom's Night Out at a local bar takes a nightmarish turn: newborn Midas, the son of enigmatic single mom Winnie, is taken from his crib while the women are out enjoying a few hours of freedom. Convinced that the police aren't doing enough to find Midas, the friends start their own investigation, never suspecting how many secrets each of them really have to hide.
The majority of the novel plays out over the course of two weeks, and Molloy effectively uses this compressed timeline to ratchet up the considerable tension of the flagging search: each day that passes feels increasingly, terrifyingly dire. However, while the search for Baby Midas—both the official police inquiry and the quasi-Scooby Doo amateur investigation led by the mothers themselves—dominates the narrative, Molloy adeptly interweaves a variety of perspectives and subplots, exploring the personal struggles and dark pasts of all of her main characters in a nuanced and empathetic fashion.
Each of these women, we find, has had her own tragic encounters with people in power, with unjust social structures and double-standards and unsolicited advice that put them on the back foot from the start, no matter how capable she might be. And for all their talents and experience, none of them has the slightest clue how to step into the profound—and profoundly different—role of "mommy," particularly as it's represented through the chirpy, Gwyneth Paltrowesque voice of the motherhood advice emails that they all receive and which precede most chapters. "Practice some of the breathing exercises you perfected in preparation for giving birth," they're told. "Try a glass of warm milk...Grab your stroller (and maybe a few members from your mommy group) and take a brisk walk around the park...make sure [your baby]'s getting the required amount of tummy time a day."
Navigating new motherhood against these relentlessly cheerful suggestions–even at secondhand, as the reader—feels overwhelming and hopeless. These women's inability to 'have it all'—to keep up with professional demands and stay in pre-baby shape and remain attentive to their partners' sexual needs and provide their infants with all the love and support and previously unheard-of necessities as "lactation consultants"—seems a foregone conclusion. And these are, let's not forget, (mostly) middle to upper-middleclass women who've had more opportunities, and have more support in their lives, than many of their peers. We only get a glimpse into the reality of Alma Romero, for instance, the undocumented nanny who has the horrible luck of being the only person home when Baby Midas is taken from his crib.
The bubbling tension in THE PERFECT MOTHER is, then, a tension wrought not only from the horrifying experience of having your child kidnapped from your home, but also from the very fabric of a world in which so much of our lives play out on a stage, subject to the comments and criticisms and comparisons of people we do and don't know, in which everyone feels at liberty to offer advice, in which actual realities look nothing like the facades that are presented to the world at large, in which women are constantly fighting to prove that they can keep up, even as the deck is stacked against them. It's a reality that forces one to seek out support in unexpected places, to forge loyalties quickly. "How long have you known her?" asks a detective of one of the May Mothers. "A while. Four months," she responds. "...Also, this is different. We're new moms. You wouldn't understand. It's a special kind of friendship."
§ Larissa Kyzer is an Icelandic-English translator who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Reviewed by Larissa Kyzer, August 2018
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