From the celebrated author of Rich and Pretty, a novel about the families we fight to build and those we fight to keep
Like many first-time mothers, Rebecca Stone finds herself both deeply in love with her newborn son and deeply overwhelmed. Struggling to juggle the demands of motherhood with her own aspirations and feeling utterly alone in the process, she reaches out to the only person at the hospital who offers her any real help—Priscilla Johnson—and begs her to come home with them as her son’s nanny.
Priscilla’s presence quickly does as much to shake up Rebecca’s perception of the world as it does to stabilize her life. Rebecca is white, and Priscilla is black, and through their relationship, Rebecca finds herself confronting, for the first time, the blind spots of her own privilege. She feels profoundly connected to the woman who essentially taught her what it means to be a mother. When Priscilla dies unexpectedly in childbirth, Rebecca steps forward to adopt the baby. But she is unprepared for what it means to be a white mother with a black son. As she soon learns, navigating motherhood for her is a matter of learning how to raise two children whom she loves with equal ferocity, but whom the world is determined to treat differently.
Written with the warmth and psychological acuity that defined his debut, Rumaan Alam has crafted a remarkable novel about the lives we choose, and the lives that are chosen for us.
I'm the author of the novels Rich and Pretty, That Kind of Mother, and Leave the World Behind.
My short fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Crazyhorse, Meridian, and elsewhere. I've also written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic. I studied writing at Oberlin College. Now I live in New York with my husband and two kids.
This book was simultaneously beautifully written and intensely boring. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing really did. Even the big things that happened felt so small. I think the book was just too subtle for my liking. I think I would have enjoyed it more as a short story.
THAT KIND OF MOTHER dives deep into big questions about parenthood, adoption, and race: Is mothering something learned, or that you're born to? How far can good intentions stretch? And most of all, can love can really overcome the boundaries of race and class? With his unerring eye for nuance and unsparing sense of irony, Rumaan Alam's second novel is both heartfelt and thought-provoking.
Rebecca Stone desperately needs help with her newborn and Pricilla, a La Leche nurse from the hospital comes to her rescue. Pricilla, having mothering experience herself as she was a single, teen mom many years ago, leaves her job at the hospital to becomes the nanny for Rebecca’s baby. Rebecca feels close to Pricilla, confiding in her and voicing her fears, hopes and dreams while learning how to care for her child and what it means to be a mother; she looks up to her and relies on her stability and competence, and in some cases, due to the fact that Pricilla is black, she causes her to think about the world in a different way. After an unexpected turn of events, Pricilla becomes pregnant, has the baby and then is gone, and Rebecca volunteers to adopt the newborn. Rebecca feels this is the least she can do to thank Pricilla for all she has done. But there is a lot Rebecca does not know about raising a child of a different race. And she is blinded by her rose colored glasses when she looks at life.
This story brings up a lot of questions and it is difficult not to pass judgement and have an opinion on Rebecca’s thoughts and actions. Is she “saving” this black baby by bringing him into a white, wealthy family, or is she doing him a disservice by not allowing him to grow up with black parents who can teach him what it means to be black in America? She doesn’t know much about being black; how to take care of black hair and skin, and she doesn’t think much about what prejudices he might face as a black man. That Kind of Mother is about the challenges of motherhood, race and how family can be created without being blood related, but it is also commentary on selfishness disguised as selflessness, lack of understanding blinded by positivity and hopefulness for the future.
Rebecca’s view of her relationship with Pricilla is so much different than what I saw as a reader. She believes they are connected, the closest of friends, and she feels loyal to Pricilla because of what she has been taught about mothering and due to the support she has felt from her during the most stressful part of her life when she was responsible for her brand new baby. But my opinion is this: the relationship was one sided. Pricilla was doing a great job being a nanny, supporting the mother, teaching her how to care for her child, listening to her talk, and providing her with the time to be independent. But did Rebecca know anything about Pricilla? Her family? Her home life? Her hopes and dreams? Did she ever ask her? Rebecca may have been privileged – white, wealthy, recognized in her field, and able to provide an adopted child a financially solid home, but I believe this perceived friendship, combined with her own self centered outlook on life (regardless of race) misguided her and adopting this baby was not necessarily the best thing for him or for Rebecca’s family.
To give you something more to think about, this book was written by Rumaan Alam, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, married to a white man and raising two adopted black sons in Brooklyn, NY. Alam does a great job writing from a woman’s perspective as he explores women’s friendships, describes giving birth, breastfeeding and articulating thoughts inside the head of a woman. He also shows how families are formed in many ways and can be very different, but they all have things in common too. Parenthood is a challenge no matter who you are, and acknowledging what you don’t know can be a good thing – often it takes a village. I highly recommend this book, and particularly for bookclubs as it has so much to discuss.
If you're looking for an insightful, though provoking book about the struggles of a white woman (Rebecca) raising a black boy, you won't find that here. There are almost no difficulties and that those that do occur are how they impact Rebecca not the child and the novel seems to have rewarded her for adopting this child with success as a poet. Frankly I'm surprised this was written by a man of color, without the author information I would have assumed a white woman wrote this.
I wanted to love this. And while it is excellently written, line by line, I became increasingly frustrated and annoyed as the novel wore on with the characters and in many ways, the plot itself, which started to seem irrational.
There are parts of motherhood, and the trauma/chaos of giving birth, and the loneliness/exhaustion/tedium of tending to young children, that this male author gets exactly right, and the stream of consciousness way he relates those feelings are at times, quite beautiful. At first, I really related to Rebecca's reliance and feelings of profound gratitude for Priscilla, because you do tend to form a special connection with those who are there for you at this profound (and profoundly confusing) time in your life. I even--mostly-- understood when Rebecca wanted to step in and help with baby Andrew after Priscilla's untimely death.
But Rebecca's increasing attachment to baby Andrew and the way she seemed to forgo her husband, for one, and in a way, her flesh-and-blood son, for a child who, in reality, belonged to a woman who had a very one-sided relationship with Rebecca (Rebecca knows practically nothing about who Priscilla the woman is/was) started to feel more like a symptom of mental illness to me than anything else. The fact that we are supposed to believe this woman is a National Book Award-nominated poet when she can't even fathom why Priscilla's son-in-law could ever possibly be made to lie down on the street by cops after being pulled over in a BMW "I just don't understand. I just don't understand!" became laughable.
I wasn't really sure what point the author was trying to make about Rebecca. Were we supposed to sympathize and agree with her or see her as a naïve and foolish optimist? What I don't think the author was trying to do was make her seem unhinged, but that's exactly how I started to see her. I also found the relationship between Rebecca and Priscilla's daughter confusing, with too much resentment and aggression simmering under the surface. But at the same time, if Cheryl had so much obvious resentment and aggression towards Rebecca, why did she so easily (too easily) hand her baby brother over to her to adopt in the first place? By the end of the book, I couldn't help but feel like ten years was built on a total lie, and really, what was the point?
Overall, a lot of mixed feelings. If the writing itself wasn't so well done in parts, I'd give it two stars.
After reading 50 pages about breast feeding and La Leche League, I didn't understand how this book got published. It describes the mundane aspects of early motherhood in too much detail. Really, who cares about what it takes to get an infant to latch onto the breast? Who cares that it's colostrum, not milk that comes out at first? Not mothers. Been there, done that. All of us could have written those 50 pages. I almost stopped reading. Then the story finally moves along and we see the first 50 pages were the setup for a friendship between a new white mother, Rebecca, and the breast feeding consultant, Priscilla, who is black.
Priscilla becomes Rebecca's nanny, while we watch Rebecca's marriage to her English diplomat husband deteriorate. Rebecca needs a nanny so she can continue writing her poetry. She was once awarded a prestigious prize. But Rebecca uses the time to get to know Priscilla better and further her obsession with Princess Diana of Wales. She's got a little writer's block.
It's an exercise in suspension of disbelief, that almost doesn't work, but with little mention that Priscilla is pregnant, much less no discussion of who the father might be, Priscilla dies in childbirth. Predictably, Rebecca adopts the black child Andrew. She's clueless about life for black boys. Luckily, Priscilla's daughter Cheryl and her husband Ian, with a new baby of their own, are around to point out that life for black boys is different. Rebecca must have "the talk" with Andrew. Black men are treated harshly by the police. Rebecca learns on her own that he is treated differently in school. He's the trouble maker where it would be normal behavior if he were white. And so on. Rebecca lives under a rock apparently. Or maybe racial discrimination wasn't so obvious in the 1980's. I doubt it.
There are endless pages of tedious children's play and Rebecca's monotonous life of mothering two boys as her marriage deteriorates. Again, I wondered how this book got published. I realized a man wrote the book and stopped myself from saying, "Oh, that explains it." Because so many women must have written novels like this that were passed over. But the spin of Rebecca's complete naiveté raising a black child added an interesting dimension.
Rebecca's child raising experience ultimately transforms her and her writer's block is broken. That's good.
The novel has problems. It's a good story. But the dialogue is stilted. It doesn't feel like real people are talking. It's too formal. Except for Priscilla and Rebecca's English husband, I couldn't tell much difference among the speakers. And Rebecca's sexual feelings were jarring. I'm sorry. That's when I knew the novel was written by a man. Yes, middle-aged women get horny, but they don't typically think the same way as men. It's less "come here and fuck me" as he wrote in the book about her thinking about sex and more "he drove me crazy with desire". Or even, "I felt myself get wet." There were a number of places I didn't feel like I was in a woman's head. Also, all the writing had a weird, almost British style writing to it.
Black children raised by white families is a very relevant topic. Maybe the author could have spent more time on that subject.
It’s rare for me to despise a character so much, but Rebecca, the main character is just so self involved privileged selfish woman, and she is supposed to be sympathetic? The premise of her adopting an African American baby, on a whim, is so far fetched, it’s insensitive. And the casual way it gets done- completely unrealistic. The author deals a tiny bit with the complex ideas of trans racial adoption, but so shallow and ignorant. It’s a huge missed opportunity. It’s an interesting and rich topic. Botched.
I read THAT KIND OF MOTHER because I was intrigued primarily by the situation the book would examine: an interracial family made by adoption, a relationship between two women across lines of race and class, and the differences between two brothers in society who are equally beloved by their mother. I was curious about the potential for drama here, and I did not expect to find myself so immersed in the mind of just one character in this web of complicated relationships. THAT KIND OF MOTHER offers exactly this: a close look at one white woman's inner life, her desires, ambitions, experience as a mother, and, most significantly, her uncertainties and blindspots. What Alam is able to render and question here about white womanhood, art making and class, intimacy and connection across gradients of difference and power, as well as our deep tendency as a culture to optimistically narrativize American progress, is profound. I read the book in under a week, engrossed by Rebecca's efforts, missteps, misinterpretations, and the way the characters around her (chiefly Cheryl) resist her version of things. This book also left me wondering about all the silences and uncertainties in the family that were not uncovered--these mysteries are yet another strength of this rich, sticky, and compelling novel.
It’s not surprising that Celeste Ng blurbed this book. Superficially, at least, Rumaan Alam is concerned with many of same issues as Ng and his novel has some of the same features as her recent Little Fires Everywhere: tensions within a privileged upwardly mobile family, interracial relations and adoption, motherhood, female creativity and ambition. However, Ng’s work is a far more symphonic one than Alam’s: many angles are presented; multiple voices are heard, and there is a far more complex plot. That Kind of Mother, on the other hand, has a single focus: Rebecca Stone, a character with an extraordinary fixation on herself. Everything that happens in Alam’s novel is filtered through her. Characters are always depicted in relation to her; there are no chapters or even sections of chapters from the points of view of others. The issues that are raised appear to be less important in themselves than as tools the author can use to expose his protagonist’s narcissism.
Alam’s novel begins in a Maryland hospital in the mid-1980s. Rebecca is in her early thirties and in labour. (The then fairly recent birth of England’s Prince Harry in 1984 is an early—and, we later learn, fairly significant—reference point in a novel which will span several years.) After the arrival of her son and while still on the maternity ward, Rebecca, as a first-time mother, receives instruction on how to breastfeed her son. Priscilla, a warm and encouraging black woman in her early forties, is the coach. Priscilla’s calm manner and her apparent unconditional positive regard for the younger woman intoxicate Rebecca, who soon engages her as a nanny. It’s not Rebecca who pays Priscilla’s generous wages. (Rebecca has no money, and before marriage relied on the financial generosity of her parents). No, it is her British diplomat husband, Christopher, who foots the bill. Nevertheless, Rebecca basks in the Lady Bountiful role. The fact that Priscilla’s 25-year-old daughter, Cheryl, a nurse, had gone to some trouble to get her mother the maternity coaching job doesn’t even register with Rebecca. Her own need for a nanny is paramount. She needs “alone time” to get on with the serious business of being a poet. Yes, a poet. In the early days of Priscilla’s employment, however, the now-liberated Rebecca does little writing. She sequesters herself in her office only to look at fashion magazines, rearrange her desk, and daydream.
Rebecca fancies herself a progressive liberal, sensitive to issues of race. She tells herself that she considers, and indeed treats, Priscilla as a full member of the family. She lunches and talks with the nanny, and she invites her to birthday parties and family celebrations. She is appalled when her elderly mother-in-law treats and later refers to Priscilla as a servant, and is entirely unaware of the ways in which her own behaviour casts her “almost friend” in the role of a discreet and deferent mammy, who wouldn’t dare pass judgement on her mistress.
Just when all seems to be going smoothly, with Rebecca “in the zone”, feeling more psychologically secure than she ever has and beginning to produce some poetry, Priscilla makes a surprising announcement: she is pregnant. (She had been 17 and single when she had Cheryl 25 years before.) Priscilla continues to work for Rebecca, but then dies suddenly immediately after giving birth to a son. Recently married and soon to give birth herself, Cheryl is relieved when Rebecca offers to take care of her infant half-brother, Andrew. What begins as a temporary arrangement turns into a permanent one: legal adoption. Christopher attempts to raise objections to the plan; he demonstrates a willingness to provide Cheryl with some financial support so that she and Ian, her husband, can raise Andrew with their own daughter. But Rebecca gets what Rebecca wants: Andrew. Why exactly she wants him is not initially clear—at least it wasn’t to me. However, it becomes evident that Rebecca models herself after Princess Diana, whom she regards as a glamorous elder sister, a role model of sorts, committed to good works. She imagines that the two have a mystical connection. Both have older, emotionally detached husbands, and now, with the adoption of Andrew, Rebecca (like Diana) has two sons. Ever sensitive to the reactions of others (worried that her own mother dislikes her, that Cheryl is unimpressed by her person, and, later, that her editor finds her uninteresting) in this case, Rebecca allows herself to believe that the act of adopting a black child has brought her “a sort of fame” and that the parents at the Montessori school “admire” her and regard her as “a legend”. Rebecca’s enlightenment and good works will ultimately extend to exposing Andrew to Bill Cosby’s TV show, books about Martin Luther King Jr., and the music of Michael Jackson.
Much of That Kind of Mother focuses on the interactions between Rebecca’s and Cheryl’s families, who maintain fairly close, but hardly intimate, contact. Rebecca is incapable of intimacy—“people did not interest her”—and as Cheryl angrily points out, Rebecca also doesn’t listen. “You think I’m an extension of you,” she tells her angrily. “A character in your world, a supporting role. It’s not fair. I’m not that, I’m a person, your son’s sister. Your friend, sort of.” Rebecca accepts no guidance from Cheryl and Ian about the significant challenges Andrew will face as a black youth. She is offended when his fourth-grade teacher observes that he is disruptive and appears to suffer from “a maturity gap” (apparently he’s not unlike his adoptive mother in this regard). Rebecca is similarly blind to her husband’s needs and the work he does to fund a life in which she lacks for nothing. Their marriage, which to her resembles a performance for which she cannot remember her lines or a party at which small talk is required, not surprisingly fails— shortly after Charles and Diana’s does. For Rebecca, reality never quite meets the promise of fantasy. As for her professional life: the prestige of being a prize-winning, celebrated poet is of far greater importance than the creative work itself: the thinking and writing and playing with words.
In the end, it is hard to know quite what to make of Alam’s book. The issues raised in it—about interracial adoption, the abusive treatment of African Americans by police, the naïve (essentially self-serving) do-gooder-ism of the liberal well-to-do class—are pretty obvious ones. They’ve been done before. Alam’s characters are somewhat flat, and their dialogue is occasionally wooden. Perhaps the biggest problem of all, though, is that it’s almost impossible to imagine a person with Rebecca’s qualities being a poet. Throughout the book, various characters comment on her “optimism”, but it’s hard for a reader to regard her as anything but sheltered, shallow, and naïve—possibly mentally ill (at one point, she has a conversation—or hallucinated exchange—with Lady Di), and maybe just stupid and annoying.
Is it possible for a writer to interest readers in a protagonist who is so remarkably self-involved? Does the frustration of other characters with her self-centredness constitute adequate tension to keep a reader interested for 300-plus pages? Can a novel actually work if the protagonist undergoes no real change—is, in fact, incapable of change? I’m not sure. What I can say is that this is a puzzling and unusual book, which is not about what it at first seems to be about. That’s a kind of accomplishment—even if an inadvertent one.
Rebecca doesn’t want to be “that kind of mother”, the kind that talks endlessly about and lives through her children. In this she succeeds: she is another kind of mother—a narcissistic one who has created or adopted children to be her hoped-for future audience. She imagines them coming back as men and marvelling at at all she has done.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I really oscillated between three and four stars for this one.
Rebecca Stone, a white woman in the 80’s bonds with her black nursing coach, Priscilla. The women strike an odd friendship that continues for a few years until Priscilla becomes pregnant and dies in childbirth. Rebecca decides to adopt Priscilla’s son. The story is a slow exploration of the lives of Rebecca, her sons, family and Priscilla’s family for the next decade.
This is a very quiet novel. Alam’s writing is incisive and often meandering. While I enjoyed the way his writing creates snapshots of the family through the years, there were times I just wanted him to hurry up and tell the story. Many times, it felt like there was no real story. The reader is just led along the lives of these characters.
As expected, the novel dissects race relations, motherhood and what friendship really means. At the end of the novel, there is a sense that one never fully knows the people they love.
I enjoyed this to a large extent and definitely recommend slowly reading it, patiently. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like slow novels exploring the inner lives of women, this is perfect.
E-arc received from publisher via edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.
The description of this book was more interesting to me than the actual book. I didn't find Rebecca interesting or likable and I felt the the author danced around the issues of race that were raised in the story. All in all I just was left wanting there to be more to the story.
I did just over a quarter of this on audio, but after a tour de force of an opening chapter about the main character giving birth, absolutely nothing else of interest happened. The characters wouldn’t budge off the page: they refused even to sit up.
It is so much harder to review things I like. I just noticed that most of my favorite books from this year's reading are left without reviews - that's because when I like something, I often can't tell you why. Here's what I noticed about this book: I expected it to be more hard-hitting in the areas of cross-cultural or cross-racial adoption, but it wasn't (which was nice.) I also expected more stupid white people, to be honest, but all of the characters come with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, blind spots and positive traits. Nobody is a hero, everyone is a real person. The characterizations are lovely and most of the time pretty believable. Rumaan Alam steers around lots of potential pitfalls and wisely sets this novel between 1985 and 1999, when the world really was a different place in many ways. At times the irony is so heavy it left drops on my table, but it's never sarcastic or mean-spirited. The characters are all learning and growing, and nobody gets off easily when dealing with race, what it means to be a family, how the world treats people from different classes, genders, races, backgrounds...
Almost more than race and class, what I read here was a uniquely American book in large part. I can't honestly remember being as optimistic as the people in this book, but it's impossible to regain ignorance in a post-everything world. These characters still have the Twin Towers (and even eat at Windows on the World,) haven't seen a full-on war in decades, think things are getting better. So beyond the obvious issues of race and class that get most of the ink in reviews, there is also a careful and poignant exploration of what it means to be American now that we know what these characters have yet to experience.
I couldn't help wondering what would happen in just a few years, when it all started to crumble for this family - I'd love to have followed this family through so many more points in history, and while it wasn't a cliff-hanger, I'd like to see the next decades covered by the adopted son if I got to make wishes into books.
This was a mismatch of expectations. I've heard raves about how it's SO! GOOD! and was quite underwhelmed.
It's about interracial adoption and touches on the various liberal white views of racism through the 80s and 90s, yes, but...it only touches on them. Briefly. From "all skin is the same" to "isn't America color blind now?" many problematic views are laid out, but only barely talked about.
I thought we were going to dive deep and really get into the issues of a (mostly clueless) white family raising a black child, but it was at most a shallow dive.
What I wish I'd known: this book is mostly about Rebecca and her life as a mother. The mundane life all mothers live, the life she has apart from her children in her work, and the somewhat unique experiences she has as an adoptive mother. This isn't an issues book, so don't go in expecting that.
Rebecca thinks she is an optimist. Why wouldn't she be? Things have always turned out fine for her. Turns out that her optimism may just be white privilege. This book seems like it's going to tackle race issues, but it's more of an exploration into one woman's life. Yes, she has a black son, so race is a theme, but it wasn't touched on as heavily as I thought it would be. It was very clear that Rebecca is oblivious to her privilege, and though I found her thoughts interesting, she was also infuriating (which is probably the point). I kept waiting for something big to happen that would encourage Rebecca to open her eyes, and to see how different the world is for people who don't have an abundance of money, for people who aren't white. I don't feel like that moment ever came, regardless of opportunity. There were learning lessons for her...sure...but IMO she didn't learn much. She tended to ignore, or smother adversity with her optimism. It was true throughout the book that everything did if fact work out just fine for her. As frustrating as this felt for me as the reader, it was also pretty true to life. Many people remain oblivious to their privilege, so I am not surprised that even though she came to a sort of revelation at the end of the book, she maintained her privilege, and never really suffered any hardships that weren't internal. When I finished this book I wouldn't say I felt good, but it has left me thinking about the people I know who are like Rebecca, and about the ways in which I relate to her...the ways I can be a better mother, and be more aware of my privilege. I highly recommend this book. **I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I’m so disappointed. I need to remember that anything under 3.5 on GoodReads is a risk! I heard a stellar review of this book on a podcast from someone with whom I usually share taste in books, so I overlooked the 3.1 score. I need to remember that GoodReads > Podcasts.
This book had great potential! But the themes it was supposed to explore (race, adoption, etc) were barely touched upon. Seriously, barely. There was the obligatory story about driving while black and an anecdote about a teacher maybe? probably? singling out a black kid for bad behavior that she’d overlook in a white student. That was it. In a novel about a white family adopting a black baby, that’s all the friction they encounter. Mmkay. There was a lot about the main character’s poetry career though. Oy. I couldn’t connect with any character at all; some very intense events happen here, but it was like reading about it all through gauze. This book would’ve been well served by having chapters told from different points of view, but since I didn’t feel like I knew any of the characters, by the end, I didn’t care.
Also, final annoyance: the book takes place in the suburbs of DC. There are mentions of Tenleytown, Bethesda, Silver Spring. Old Georgetown Road, DuPont Circle. I live here, so this was all familiar, which is why it made me cringe every time he referred to their house on Wisconsin Drive. It’s Wisconsin Avenue. It was like nails on a chalk board. This may sound like minor nit-picking, but it’s not, I promise. Wisconsin Avenue is a major landmark thoroughfare. Can you imagine a story taking place in NYC and reading about Madison Drive instead of Madison Avenue? It seriously bugged me!
I went back and forth on my feelings for this book. I liked that it was set in the 90’s and cultural references were weaved throughout the story (minus the blatant Starbucks references). I liked that it was a cast of diverse characters. I liked some of the descriptions of motherhood.
I did not particularly care for the main character, Rebecca. I did not find her storyline as a poet believable. I found it hard to reconcile the two main parts of the story: where she adopts Andrew and where she is a successful poet. I wish the story dove deeper on the racial issues that were just, in my opinion, glazed over. The scene where Ian is stopped by the police felt important, but then it was never brought back again.
I also have mixed feelings about the fact that this meditation on motherhood came from a male author. Overall, I enjoyed this read during some parts and found others confusing or just not enough for me.
I'm on a "quiet novels about women's interior live"s kick, apparently. The set-up for this - a white woman adopts her black nanny's son after the nanny dies in childbirth - makes it sound much more issue driven than it is, although Alam does weave insights about race throughout. More than anything, though, this is a coming-of-middle-age story. The writing is lovely, and the details of Rebecca's life, the passing mentions about the news, about her career, about her husband, give it specificity that makes it feel unique.
It's a cliche to marvel about a man writing a woman well, but I think Alam's portrayal of motherhood is really wonderful and feels so authentic.
Nothing really *happens* in this book, so definitely not a choice for plot-driven readers, but a great choice for readers interested in complex, flawed characters.
I don't know if I'll ever recover from how well Rumaan Alam writes women. He does it incredibly well in Rich and Pretty, and he does it again in That Kind of Mother.
Of course, I can't relate to motherhood, but I can still relate to a lot of Rebecca and her world - sometimes in ways I don't necessarily want to admit, alas here we are. This book deals with a lot of issues, all with care and complexity. I remain a fan, and can't wait to see what comes next.
There are plenty of male authors who can write female characters but Rumaan Alam is not one of them. I didn’t like Rich and Pretty either but thought I would try this one because it’s on the Modern Mrs Darcy summer list and it is about adoption. I was not impressed. The main character Rebecca was just strange - not a typical mother and I am sure that’s what he was going for but so much of what she did and how she lived was very unrealistic in my opinion. And the adoption was just....there - like it was just another plot point. There was no overarching message of how great it is to adopt. There wasn’t any negative message about it either. Rebecca had no friends, got divorced and was totally fine with it and just loved her boys and her poetry. That was her whole world and in the book it worked out for her because she published a book and got an award. But that’s in a book - not real life. Not impressed.
Alam gets motherhood so exactly right—the simultaneous and entirely opposed feelings, the physical sensations, the loneliness, the pleasures. The plot of this novel hums along interestingly, and the issues it tackles (interracial adoption, well-meaning but clueless white liberalism) are interesting, too, but I would have loved the book even if those elements were excised, leaving nothing but the paragraphs about breastfeeding and childbirth. And not that the tones are remotely the same, but in its setting (Washington, DC), its era (1980s), its wit, and its love of food, it reminded me pleasantly of Heartburn, by Nora Ephron.
The Modern Mrs. Darcy Summer Reading Guide is usually a reliable source for me, but I didn’t like this one at all.
I’ll begin with a sample. If you like the following sentences, found within a paragraph of one another, you might like this book: “Matriculating McDougal, in an ill-fitting suit, beaming under the arm of his father, was a ghost of the man before her, who was heavier, softer, and beginning to lose his hair.” “He’d been poked with life-preserving sera and pronounced hale.”
So the writing is just not my style. It feels like overuse of a thesaurus. But beyond that, the main character was extremely unlikeable. She was snobbish, self-absorbed, and completely unaware of the people surrounding her. She refused to listen to or see others despite people close to her repeatedly leveling just that criticism against her. I thought or hoped that at some point she would catch on and change, but she never did. The character was also wildly inconsistent in her liberalism. In one scene she ponders whether the verb “to spook” is racist as she knows the noun is, but s chapter later she is gobsmacked by the idea that she would be privileged by a judge because she is a white woman, over a black man. So we are to believe that this woman, in 1988, is woke enough to question the potentially racist connotations of the phrase “don’t spook the baby” but has never considered white privilege. The character development went nowhere. The plot went nowhere.
Additionally, the structure of the book was sloppy and confusing. Time lapses were difficult to keep track of. Sometimes years pass between chapters and sometimes one year stretches into 5 chapters. I think. I lost track. There were many things that I think were meant to repeat throughout the book but never really paid off, such as the Princess Diana thread. Characters were introduced late in the book, as late as 200 pages in, and given a pretty solid introduction before being abruptly dropped with no reason emerging for their introduction into the story. Minor plot points were given pages and pages of detail and then the major turning point of the novel, Priscilla’s death, was not given a single detail. She was in the hospital, she had a baby, she died. No explanation, little emotion. Compared to the entire chapter devoted to the emotions and thoughts and process of learning to breastfeed, it was confusing to be left with just this: she died.
Overall, this felt like a novelist who knew he could tick all the boxes for a modern bestseller (interracial adoption, 80s-90s setting, etc), but failed to do adequate research or write from lived experience. I would so much rather read a novel touching on his experiences as a gay man of color and a father than to see motherhood so strangely portrayed.
Loved this book though I'm not usually one for books about motherhood. But I was drawn to this one in part because the author, Rumaan Alam, is not a woman and in part because everyone raves about his first book, Rich and Pretty. Most men don't write female characters in convincing, meaningful ways but Alam does.
I've got a few small quibbles including the situation with Ian which was never mentioned again and the tension between Cheryl and Rebecca didn't play the role it could have have. And maybe that's because the story was told from Rebecca's viewpoint (in third person) and she didn't fully (at all?) understand Cheryl's frustration and, ultimately, anger. I would have liked to have seen both of these themes and storylines better developed. Alas, I am not Alam nor am I his editor.
Avoiding spoilers, Ian's situation was an interesting part of the book and had the book been set in 2018 rather than the late 80s/early 90s, Christopher and Rebecca wouldn't have been at all surprised by their story (or would they?) But then the Princess Diana piece of the book wouldn't have made much sense so I'm glad it was set when it was.
There is so much here for book clubs to talk about--I'm guessing this will be a popular book for clubs for several years to come.