Book Review: “Mothercare,” by Lynne Tillman

MOTHERCARE: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence, by Lynne Tillman

With the rights of mothers and would-be mothers and would-rather-not-be mothers first under threat, and now under open ambush, who can blame writers and publishers for voting with their offerings? Mothers are having a moment. Novels about mothers, memoirs by and about them, essays on mothering with and without trauma, with or without dollops of white space between paragraphs. Mothers for most every palate. Yet the observant reader will probably have noticed that mothers have never been in short supply. Every idiot seems to have one.

A joke, sure, but when it comes to narrative prose — notorious for featuring any number of beloved characters lacking eyes, feet, teeth, jobs, sofas and so forth, for the simple reason that their authors never happen to mention them — it’s a notable ubiquity. Outside of fairy tales, and certainly post-Freud, mothers are the rule rather than the exception. Smothering ones, kindly ones, bitter ones, absent ones. Complicated ones, in a word. That, I guess, is what’s called realism … or canniness. The complications of motherhood make for excellent drama. No human being alivecould convincingly say that they don’t understand the stakes.

But while “canny” would be a good descriptor for Lynne Tillman’s writing — “brittle” another; sometimes even “cranky” — one could never accuse the veteran contrarian of jumping on any sort of cultural bandwagon. Tillman has in this slim memoir of the final years of her mother’s life zeroed in on an underrepresented facet of the universal contract: our queasy anxiety that the relationship might, in the end, be transactional. That the person without whom you would not exist, who in all probability knew you most intimately and (we can hope) loved you most completely, might one day want, if not payment in kind, some return on that investment. But where our species has been provided with genetic instructions and incentives galore to reward itself for procreation — such that the feeding-cleaning-rearing burdens placed on mothers are ones we tend to tacitly approve, romanticize and even enjoy — there is no oxytocin rush or cultural capital coming down the pike for adult children caring for aged parents.

Changing an infant’s diaper may be no mother’s favorite necessity, but it can be done with affection and without too much loss of dignity for either party. Changing your mother’s diaper, however, is the definition of unrewarding. Both parties are humiliated. It’s hard to write about without its becoming comedy. It’s hard to write about at all.

“Mothercare” manages, and without bathos or squeamishness — though Tillman confesses she never got used to the more excremental of her responsibilities. Every new complication in her mother’s medical descent from self-reliant, prickly, opinionated woman to a second infancy dares readers to examine their own consciences. If love is that thing of hugs and cuddles and confessions we see on our screens, Tillman did not love her mother. But if love is action and agency on another’s behalf, regardless of feeling, like it or lump it, then Tillman’s love was extraordinary. Like a mother’s.

“Mothercare” is practical, not sentimental. It flirts with being analytical. It’s even useful, as Tillman runs through her and her sisters’ travails dealing with doctors and home care. Though it is memoir and not a novel, only Tillman the novelist could have produced it. I’ve often thought that much of her fiction was concerned with the cruelty of simply noticing — and of noticing one’s own noticing. “Some days I wanted to take everyone to court,” she writes in this book, “a godless Job-poor-me, why did this have to happen, a put-upon-by-life feeling. Yeah, poor me, poor everyone.” The daughter and the writer fighting for the pen. Would that we could be slick and cynical, hardhearted observers all the time, and sons and daughters never! But that’s not the deal, is it?

Call your mothers, ladies and gentlemen. But I don’t think Lynne Tillman will much mind what you call them.

Jeremy M. Davies is a writer and editor living in New York. He is the author of the novels “Rose Alley” and “Fancy,” and the story collection “The Knack of Doing.”

MOTHERCARE: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence, by Lynne Tillman | 160 pp. | Soft Skull | $23