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A Meditation on Motherhood : A MOTHER'S LOVE, By Mary Morris (Doubleday: $19.95; 287 pp.)

June 20, 1993|Christopher Tilghman | Christopher Tilghman is the author of " In a Father's Place, " a collection of stories

In "A Mother's Love," novelist, travel writer and memoirist Mary Morris has concocted a brave meditation on parenthood. At once slyly humorous and deeply troubling, this short novel encompasses an extraordinary range of responses to children: from slavery to their needs to complete abandonment; from the release of a mother's milk at a baby's first cry to the exhausted sleep of a single parent driven to the end of her wits. By ignoring utterly the intrusions of presidential and gender politics upon the choices of parenthood, and by concentrating on one woman, one baby, one life, Mary Morris speaks from the heart on this most personal and universal topic. "A Mother's Love," within the quiet and quirky tone set by its main character, is a stunning success.

Ivy Slovak, the mother in the title, is a dreamy young person without a lot of direction. She has had an unusual upbringing, remembered at length in the book, that included waking up one morning at age 7 to discover that her mother had taken her younger sister and left for good. Ivy never sees her mother or sister again. Raised by her father, she slides into a year or two of art school, to a course on real estate brokerage, to her present trade as a jewelry repairer. She follows Matthew, a photographer, from California to Manhattan mostly because she can't think of a good reason not to.

Ivy's life changes for good when she gets pregnant and decides, upon hearing the urgent beating of her fetus' heart, that she will bear the child despite Matthew's refusal to support her or it. (One of the many pleasures of this book is watching Morris skewer this man--and all men of his commitment-averse ilk--simply by letting him speak. "You're asking me to make decisions about my feelings . . . I can't say for sure. I need to think this through," he says, months after his child is born.) When the novel opens, Ivy and the newborn Bobby are living in a shabby uptown apartment littered with food wrappers, and the prospects look dim.

This is not a novel dependent on plot. Morris avoids the high drama of families--"Don't talk to me about families," says one single mother to another--and concentrates on a slow immersion in the essence of parenthood. Though the structure rises on a steady arc toward Ivy's maturation as an adult child and a mother, the sequence of events reflects the sort of picked-up existence that is lived on a newborn's schedule. "Everything I do is in doses," says Ivy about her life, and she might as well have said the same about the story constructed out of it.

There is a good dose of humor here, at least, the humor of in-jokes for Those Who Have Been There. Indeed, the novel reads as a sort of Perils of Pauline for parents with infants, a catalogue of the troubles that await a woman with a baby, stroller and armful of groceries in the uncivilized world. The stroller refuses to fold as a busload of people glare. Bobby shrieks in movie theaters and misbehaves in front of childless friends. Many readers will be forced to admit that they recognize all too well the endless what-if terrors, the "millions of ways to choke or suffocate" that reverberate endlessly through the brain of one who has so recently assumed complete responsibility for another human being. Morris does not play for laughs, but told in Ivy's wistful way, we cannot help but smile. "Other mothers grinned knowingly," says Ivy as she changes the baby on a sink. "Yes, their nods told me. I know what this is."

There are also, interspersed in the story, doses of kindness. Strangers once in a while provide the extra pair of hands, a neighbor, a divorced woman with two children, finds Ivy and Bobby, exhausted, at her door and opens her arms and her house with the completeness of a grandmother. "Send her a plane ticket home," yells her father in the background of a telephone call with her stepmother. He grabs the phone. "Either I'll come there or you come here. Those are your choices. Period." Morris is wonderful in these moments, generous and unstinting with momentary relief for Ivy and the reader.

But the brilliance of the humor and kindness in this book is that none of it is a joke and that no amount of compassion for Ivy and Bobby can change the realities they face. The same incidents that provoke knowing grins also evoke the horror of bondage, the awful recognition of the baby's dependence. Night after night, Ivy begs the baby to let her sleep. " 'Please don't,' I plead with my infant son. 'Please don't wake me again.' "

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