Tag Archives: mothers

Sleep-Deprived in Park Slope: The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn @AmyShearn @SimonBooks

cover image of The Mermaid of BrooklynAmy Shearn‘s second novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn has a cover blurb from Maria Semple, the author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. This makes sense because the two authors are similar in that theyboth use humor when writing about serious issues like depression and motherhood, whichever comes first. (Just kidding!)

The Mermaid of Brooklyn is a story set in Brooklyn (specifically, the family-friendly neighborhood of Park Slope) in the current day of cell phones and triple strollers with cup holders. Readers get a real feel for the pleasures and the drawbacks of living in the city with children on relatively modest means.

Otherwise, the book is hard to describe. Though being saved by the spirit of a mermaid (specifically a rusulka, the scrappy mermaid of Slavic folk tales) after dying may make you think magical realism (with mysterious things happening all over the city to no one’s astonishment), the story reads more like a literary love letter to her Brooklyn neighborhood from Jenny Lipkin, a very tired stay-at-home mother of two very young children, who has a graduate degree in Russian folklore and a husband who went for cigarettes and never came back.

Jenny narrates the story with a wit and a critical eye that is similar to Bernadette’s riffing on the pretensions of other parents and Seattle in general, but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the story is lighter, airier, hard to sink into. Readers don’t get to know Bernadette or Seattle deeply. In The Mermaid of Brooklyn, readers are right there in the city, suffering through a long, hot summer with Jenny, which she gets through only with the help of her informal support group of other park-visiting parents, and, of course, the mermaid of the title.

This excerpt comes near the beginning of the book:

“When Harry left and I died it was the beginning of a desperately hot summer, a long sun-scorched stretch of days determined to silence doubters of global warming. The sidewalks of Brooklyn baked all around us, Prospect Park an expanse of brownish hay. I had these two babies, and people were always saying that my whole life was ahead of me – nosy grandmothers on the subway tugging at Rose’s bootie or boinging Betty’s curls, neighborhood eccentrics dispensing unsolicited advice from their bodega-front benches. I nodded and thanked them, or sometimes rolled my eyes.”

The Mermaid of Brooklyn explores the highs and lows of parenthood but also the friendships that spring up among parents who happen to fall in together. The eternal question of balancing family vs. career or artistic ambitions is  always there in the background, too, whenever the adults aren’t too tired to think about it.

I marked many passages in the book that I would love to share, but here’s just one more excerpt to explain a little bit about the whole mermaid thing. It comes near the beginning of the book, right after Jenny has told two-and-a-half-year-old Betty the often-requested bedtime story about a fish-woman who lived at the bottom of the river:

“The fish-woman stories had emerged from a fit of overparenting pique, when it was revealed that while babysitting one night Grandma Sylvia had exposed my daughter to Disney’s insipid Little Mermaid movie, with its teeny-bopper heroine. I’d relented on a lot of the perfect parenting ideals I’d had as a pre-parent, but this was too much. Mermaids had been my favorite figures in the Slavic fairy-tale pantheon, but it was because they were weird and powerful and a little scary, not because they looked great in clamshell bikinis. I admit that I tended to neglect the girls’ wardrobes – the cuteness quotient of their coats and dresses not nearly as high as one might expect from a pair of brownstone-Brooklyn babies – and things like clipping their nails and educating them about etiquette or God or non-microwaved cuisine. But simpering female role models and saccharine fairy stories? Come on. I left out the parts about mermaids being the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be. I figured that stuff could wait until at least pre-K.”

The Mermaid of Brooklyn will definitely be on my list of favorites of 2013, along with The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. If you liked The Interestings or another New York novel reviewed here recently, The Sunshine When She’s Gone, you’ll probably like The Mermaid of Brooklyn.

The Mermaid of Brooklyn
Shearn, Amy
Touchstone (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
April 2013
368 pp.
$14.99 US/$16.99 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the public library, but I’ll buy a copy of the author’s first novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here to add to my towering TBR pile. I don’t remember where I first heard of The Mermaid of Brooklyn. I thought I read an author interview somewhere or heard the author on the Literary New England radio show, but I can’t remember now.


Busy, Busy Mums: The Hive by Gill Hornby @LittleBrown

cover image of The HiveSnippy, snarky, snide, or saintly, the mums of St. Ambrose Church Primary School come in all temperaments in The Hive, a first novel by Gill Hornby, but Bea is the acknowledged queen of them all, doling out jobs to her eager worker bees.

Taking place over the course of a year at St. Ambrose Church Primary, the novel shifts perspectives from one character to the other, but readers only form a picture of Bea through the eyes of others. The author first introduces readers to the outwardly admirable and hardworking Bea from the point of view of Rachel, age 40, a smart woman and talented artist whose self-esteem has been shattered over the summer when her husband left her for another woman and requested a divorce. Smugly secure in her position as Bea’s first lieutenant, Rachel brings her daughter to school on the first day of the new school year only to find, to her dismay, that she’s suddenly on the outs with Bea. She acts nonchalant about her sudden fall in stature at the school with her few remaining friends, and begins to see Bea with new eyes.

The author’s writing style is a little unusual – personal, but also clinical, like a sociologist studying his/her own tribe. The author observes Rachel briefly, letting readers in on her thoughts, then moves on to other mothers in her circle, and returns again to Rachel – much as, in the story, Rachel’s independent-minded mother checks on the bees in her backyard hive. With just about all female characters – mothers, daughters or both – the book veers into hen lit territory at times, especially with the new schoolmaster being divorced and the same age as Rachel. But The Hive is mostly a humorous social commentary on what might happen when mean girls grow up and about the treacherous allure that popularity in closed groups has, even among adults.

The book made me laugh many times. Rachel is the main character, but she has a small circle of friends who are also not in with the in crowd, such as Georgie and Jo, the last of the mums to still smoke openly. The minutes that Rachel’s friend Heather takes as secretary of the Extraordinary Fund-Raising Committee are especially funny. Throughout the book, poor Heather tries and tries to get into Bea’s inner circle, but her strenuous efforts appear to Rachel to be hopeless. She can’t, however, persuade her to stop.

In addition to the exciting news about the eligibility of the new schoolmaster, life at St. Ambrose this fall becomes even more interesting with the entry of two new mothers who don’t seem to understand their place in the hive.

A publishers’ bidding war resulted in a six-figure contract for this talented newbie author with excellent connections. (Nick Hornby is her brother and Robert Harris, her husband.)

Click here to read a lengthy excerpt from the beginning of the book.

The Hive
Hornby, Gill
Little Brown
Sept. 10, 2013
352 pp.
$25.00 US, $28.00 CAN, hard.

Disclosure: I received this book for review from Library Journal, where a shorter, more concise review appeared.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Audio) @HachetteAudio

cover image of Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette, a first novel by Maria Semple, narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite, is a audiobook bargain at $14.98. It came highly recommended around the blogosphere, but at first the story seemed too self-consciously quirky and to hold back an annoying amount of information. I also thought the narrator’s voice for fifteen-year-old Bee (who tells a large portion of the story in her own words) would irritate me. (It seemed too babyish, and I kept thinking Bee was ten years old or so until something reminded me she was a teenager was planning to go to boarding school the next year.) The volume level from one character’s voice to another’s seemed to vary more widely than usual, too – screeches and yells bursting into my ear at high volume and then low conversational tones – so that I found myself adjusting the volume up and down.

But after an hour or so, I settled in and enjoyed Kathleen Wilhoite’s enthusiasm and liveliness. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is her first audiobook narration. It’s also the first one I’ve listened to where the narrator can actually sing. There is one scene in the story where Bee hears the song Holy Night sung at a concert and the author quotes a couple of verses and the chorus as Bee listens, rapt. Kathleen Wilhoite sings the whole thing beautifully, instead of reading the lyrics aloud as I’ve heard other narrators do. She even nails that impossibly high note while having to keep the volume restrained.

Along with Bee’s point of view, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a compilation of documents such as report cards, email correspondence, FBI files, magazine articles, and transcripts of recorded conversations, that slowly come together to form a complete picture of the missing Bernadette — who from one viewpoint is an artistic genius architect, from another a depressed agoraphobe, and from yet another, a crazy recluse and neglectful mother. The fragmented narrative structure can make the story seem to jump around a bit, as it shows readers the same event from several angles. Patience is required from the reader before all the bits of information begin to cohere.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette has a lot of references to Microsoft – where Bernadette’s husband works as a software developer/genius – and to Seattle, where Bee attends the progressive Gaylor Street School. Excerpts from Bee’s latest Gaylor Street School report card appear at the start of the book:

“Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humor.”

“Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic.”

Bee’s excellent report card leads her to ask her parents if they remember their long-ago promise to give her whatever she wanted for a graduation gift if she gets perfect grades all the way through school. (“I do remember,” says Bernadette, weakly. “It was to ward off further talk of a pony.”) Bee excitedly requests a family trip to Antarctica. The mere idea practically sends agoraphobic Bernadette off the deep end. But, loving Bee, and wanting to honor her promise, Bernadette begins to plan for the trip, enlisting the help of a virtual personal assistant in India. Through the documents presented in the book, readers see Bernadette’s panic grow as the date for departure looms, and the once close-knit family begins to break apart under the strain.

If you liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a quirky quest story out of San Francisco about Google and books, you might also like Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which has a quirky daughter on a quest to understand what happened to her quirky mother, with insider jokes about Microsoft and Seattle (minus the fantasy elements of MP24HB.) The humor in Where’d You Go, Bernadette also reminded me of the light/dark humor in The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, with its family dynamic of borderline-crazy parents and resourceful children.

For a chuckle, watch the book trailer of the author (a screenwriter for the TV show Arrested Development) as she tries to explain to booksellers, critics, fellow authors, and random people on the street what Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about.

Listen to an excerpt from Where’d You Go, Bernadette from Hachette Audio here.

Read the AudioFile review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette here.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Semple, Maria
Wilhoite, Kathleen (narr.)
9.5 hours on 9 CDs
$14.98 US/$16.50 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library.

Other opinions on the audiobook edition of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (all excellent):
Care’s Online Book Club
A Library of One’s Own
That’s What She Read
You’ve Gotta Read This

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.