Gwendolen Gross, formerly dubbed “the reigning queen of women's adventure fiction,” by Joanna Smith Rakoff in Book Magazine, captures the ruthless reality of modern-post-feminist womanhood in her newest literary fiction, The Other Mother.
Inside this mesmerizing and suspenseful world, Gwendolen weaves a brilliant tapestry that cleverly depicts motherhood rivalry and inner turmoil through two first-person narrators. Each narrator represents opposite ends to the inevitable current-day question posed to new mothers: “Are you going back to work?” Thea Caldwell signifies the stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) and Amanda Katz embodies the work-outside-the-home moms (WOTHs). Through each mother's mindful, critical, and sometimes judgmental eyes we get an up-close and personal viewpoint of the “other” mother.
In The Other Mother, Gwendolen provides readers with the harsh realities of parenting (as they apply to both SAHMs and WOTHs), engaging contradictions of motherhood, friendship, marriage, and an emotional setting in real time that ends on an unforgettable tragedy in our nation's history.
Gwendolen breathes so much life into these two fictional moms that her novel reads like a true story. Thea raises a teenage daughter, Carra, a nine-year-old boy, Oliver, and two-year-old Iris. We witness the growing differences between the children's personalities and feel Thea's frustrations. Carra reaches the first-boyfriend stage, Oliver reigns as peacekeeper, and Iris reveals an entirely other type of child.
“I was trying to have projects with Iris the way I had with Oliver and Carra: we'd ironed leaves in waxed paper, but Iris wasn't interested in looking at the different leaves”. With each child Thea faces different challenges, just like mothers do in real life.
The Other Mother begins in a macabre scene in September 2000 in Teaneck, New Jersey. Thea discovers a mangled squirrel on her front porch. It's the first of many dead creatures to appear, knitting the first of several suspenseful threads. We learn right away who Thea suspects and how she handles it. Thea writes, “I started a sketchbook of evidence and kept it in the bottom drawer of my rolltop desk; I didn't want anyone to think I was preoccupied. And I wasn't at least at first.”
On the other side of the fence we meet eight-months-pregnant Amanda, a successful book editor who thrives inside a prominent New York City publishing house. When Amanda and her husband, Aaron, move in next door to Thea and Caius and their family, a riveting friction begins. The two women attract and repel each other at the same time, and they undergo the constant struggle to balance their life choices within the scope of their families, friendships, marriages, and the bigger world around them.
Early on we see Thea's small town hospitality rub against Amanda's big city skin. When Thea takes a plate of brownies to Amanda and Aaron to welcome them to the neighborhood, Amanda feels a mixture of emotions. She writes, “If I was going to live here, I was obviously going to have to employ a better-dressed, more cheerful self. . . In Manhattan, the general approach to neighbors was courteous disregard. . . Here, clearly, the distance between the houses didn't mean more anonymity but less.”
Four months later, in addition to her personal and professional struggles, Amanda copes with the hardships of loving and caring for her first baby, Malena.
An unforeseen disaster forces Thea and Caius to offer their home to Amanda and Aaron, escalating the underlying tensions that fester underfoot. Thea admits, “To be honest, I liked the idea of being a gracious hostess more than I actually liked keeping up that good front.”
What had been tense little battles simmering across the fence line boil into larger warlike scenes, particularly following Amanda's baby's birth. Since Amanda returns to work after maternity leave ends but before she secures hired help, Thea takes on the temporary position of Amanda's daughter's nanny. The women's war culminates in a must-read scene every reader will understand.
The multi-level power struggles that Gwendolen exposes throughout the course of the book make the women come to life on the pages. Their similarities and differences give them a three-dimensional view to which all women will relate. Thea reveals that although “Caius put them to bed sometimes,” referring to their three children, “he never gave over his body, all his sleep, letting their rhythms determine his.” Amanda feels the same resentment toward Aaron. Even though they both work, Amanda sacrifices her days at work when the nanny can't watch the baby. To further alienate Amanda, when the two cannot find a day care they like, Aaron asks Amanda to take another month off work. “Why don't you take a month off, why is this a woman's job. Why is it me who always has to choose?”
Gwendolen relates these fictional realities in such a way that we feel empathetic toward both women.
In fact, we live and breathe the conflicts that Thea and Amanda endure over the course of one year, ending in September 2001. In the end, the raging battles gain a heightened macabre sense with the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City. With our nation's real war as the back drop, we see the women's conflicts in a different light, and we realize how they change and grow.
If you're a mother, a mother-to-be, or if you simply know a mother, this novel will open your eyes and your sensibilities to the difficulty that comes with the territory in our modern-day world. As a reader who has been both a WOTH and a SAHM, I relate to each and every emotional nuance, self-doubt, building frustration, and jealousy-based tension between the two women. The Other Mother makes me contemplate the absurdness of mom-to-mom wars that do exist, including the jealous glares, competitive replies, and downright petty actions that weave their way into modern day mothers' veins. I'd be lying if I said I haven't experienced it, either leaving my veins or entering.
Gwendolen's book makes me reflect and, in that process alone, gives birth to an intention for me to evolve into a better mom, friend, neighbor, woman. I'd say this makes it the ultimate literary fiction—a true magnum opus for Gwendolen Gross.
SAHM: Stay At Home Mom
WOTH: Work Outside The Home
About the Author
Gwendolen Gross grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she studied science writing and voice performance. She spent a semester in Australia with a field studies program, studying spectacled fruit bats in the rainforest remnants of Northern Queensland.
After college Ms. Gross moved to San Francisco, then San Diego, and worked in publishing, as well as performing with the San Diego Opera Chorus. Through the San Diego Writing Center, she was selected for the PEN West Emerging Writers Program.
Ms. Gross received an M.F.A. in fiction and poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have been published in dozens of literary magazines, including Salt Hill Journal, Global City Review, The Laurel Review, and Hubbub, where her poem was selected for the 1999 Adrienne Lee Award.
Her critically acclaimed first novel, Field Guide, was issued by Henry Holt in April 2001 (Harvest paperback 2002), and her second, Getting Out, in spring 2002. The Other Mother will be released in August 2007 by Crown (Shaye/Areheart). Ms. Gross lives in northern New Jersey with her family.
Everything about Gwendolen Gross' life and writing changed once she had her first child. Like so many women, she was asked over and over again, “So, are you going back to work?” And a fabulous book was conceived. The Other Mother's official birth into the world is August 2007. Don't miss it.
If you happen to belong to a book club, and you'd like reader's guide questions to ponder before your meeting, Random House provides those for us.
Visit Gwendolen Gross' Website: http://www.gwendolengross.com/
Sue Donckels is co-editor of WOW! Women On Writing.