Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Good Mother: Not Exactly a Review of Susan Mallery's Already Home

I’ve heard other people complain about the lack of good mothers in romance novels, but until quite recently I’ve never thought that the number of bad or missing mothers was disproportionate. I’m speaking of mothers as secondary characters here. One would expect no less than splendid examples of motherhood from protagonists.

Certainly I was aware of nightmare mothers, but it always seemed to me that they were balanced by some pretty terrific mothers as well. Take the mothers in Nora Roberts’s books for example. There’s Maeve Concannon, mother of Maggie and Brianna in the Born in series, whose bitterness is a blight on her daughters’ lives, and the truly evil Gloria DeLauter of the Chesapeake Quartet, a selfish, sleazy bitch who sells her own son and later blackmails him. But Roberts also created characters like the delightful Nadia Stanislaski, beloved by husband, children, and grandchildren and Stella Quinn, whose presence in the lives of the three lost boys she and her husband Ray adopted remains vivid and influential years after her death. My favorite is Anna MacGregor, not only a loving mother and grandmother to the large MacGregor clan but also a strong and independent heroine in her own love story, For Now, Forever. Of course, I can’t forget Violet Bridgerton, mother of Julia Quinn’s alphabetically arranged Bridgertons. She is so beloved by romance readers that many of them have begged for her story, although they seem divided as to whether she should remain a widow devoted to her husband’s memory or have a second chance at love. As I said, the good mother/bad mother ratio seemed reasonable to me.

But that changed with my late 2010, early 2011 reading. Suddenly I seem to be reading an astonishing number of books with mothers who were dead, ineffectual, or self-centered. The mothers of the heroines in Robyn Carr’s Promise Canyon and Wild Man Creek, Eloisa James’s When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Rachel Gibson’s Any Man of Mine, and Sabrina Jeffries’s How to Woo a Reluctant Lady are dead. The mother of the heroine of Anne Mallory’s One Night Is Never Enough is weak and useless to her daughters. The heroines of My One and Only by Kristan Higgins and Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart by Sarah MacLean were abandoned by their mothers. MacLean gives her hero a bad mother too, a cold woman who values name and blood more than her children. As balance, I had only the mother in Susan Wiggs’s Marrying Daisy Bellamy. Sophie and Daisy had their problems in other books, but in this one Sophie is a loving, supportive parent to Daisy and to the children of her second marriage. I read Marrying Daisy Bellamy early in the year, so by the time I finished Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart last week, I was getting desperate to find a book with a good mother.

That’s when I read Already Home by Susan Mallery (Mira, March 29, 2011), a romantic women’s fiction novel that has not one but two good mothers.

Jenna Stevens has returned to her Texas hometown to build a new life for herself after a divorce from a faithless husband has left her questioning everything about the woman she thought she was. The erosion of her confidence in her culinary gifts leads her to open a cooking store rather than seek employment as a sous chef. Jenna lacks retail experience, and she makes choices about her shop that threaten its continued existence. Fortunately, she hires an assistant who possesses a creative flair and the retail knowledge Jenna lacks. With the help of this assistant and the unfaltering support of her parents, who adopted Jenna shortly after her birth, Jenna turns things around. She’s beginning to feel pride in her shop, a friendship is developing between Jenna and her assistant, Violet, and Jenna’s mother is there encouraging her and helping out in the shop.

Then one day a couple who look like aging hippies appear in the store and introduce themselves as Jenna’s birth parents. Jenna has no need for another set of parents. She sees her birth mother as a threat to her adoptive mother and wants nothing to do with this fading flower child who offers vegan recipes, messages from the Universe, and a second family, including two brothers. It is only at the urging of her adoptive mother that Jenna is even polite to her birth mother. But as she comes to know her birth mother, she grows to appreciate her and to understand that both her mothers have given her gifts that shaped her into the woman she is becoming. It is only this new understanding that prepares her heart for the man who is all she has dreamed of. The secondary plot centers on Violet—her troubled past, her determination to become more than she once thought she could be, the friendship she shares with Jenna, and the two men who enter her life.

The book is about the journeys of these two young women, and an essential part of their journeys is the relationships they have with their mothers and the mother-figures in their lives. Beth Stevens, Jenna's adoptive mother, is a conventional mother, one who loves her child devotedly and worries about her. He husband accuses her of having refined worry to an art form. Violet thinks of Beth as “the kind of woman who took in strays of all kinds,” and Beth does literally take Violet in and nurture her in ways Violet’s mother failed to do. Serenity Johnson, Jenna's birth mother, is an unconventional free spirit with a loving heart and great regret over giving her daughter up for adoption. She reared her sons with love, freedom, and “just enough rules to keep them safe.” Neither woman is perfect. Beth is illogical and surprisingly insecure, and Serenity is impulsive and sometimes insensitive.  Despite their different lifestyles and personalities, they have some important things in common. They both fell in love at a young age, and they have built long, happy marriages with their first loves and created homes filled with “laughter and conversation.” They both love their children and want to see them happy.

One of the things that keeps me reading Susan Mallery books is that her characters, even those I don’t like, seem like people I might encounter in my world. They could be the guy across the street, my cousin’s cousin, or the couple at the next table in my favorite restaurant. I feel as if I know Beth and Serenity. Like Beth, my own mother was an accomplished worrier whose hugs “never let go too soon.” And I have a friend who raises organic vegetables, cooks vegan dishes, and gave her children unusual names, although not quite as strange as Wolf and Dragon. Life has taught me that good mothers abound and that they come in very different packaging. This book reminded me of that truth, not only through Beth and Serenity but also through two very minor characters, the mother and former mother-in-law of Jenna's love interest, who prove their devotion in practical ways.

Because Already Home is women’s fiction, Jenna’s relationships with her mothers and, to a lesser degree her fathers, and her friendship with Violet play a more prominent role in the story that would be true if the novel were a contemporary romance. But there are strong romantic elements, and the story concludes with the promise of an HEA. (Jenna’s guy was definitely a keeper, but it was her brother Dragon who captured my heart.) I found this book to have the same emotional appeal and layered characters that I’ve appreciated in Mallery’s romances for years. A satisfying blend of women’s fiction and romance, readers of romance novels and readers of women's fiction should find much to like in Already Home.  Mallery has written another winner--and those good mothers make it even better.

What good--and bad--mothers from romance/women's fiction novels do you remember most vividly? Do you read women's fiction, or do you read only romance?


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Janga. I will have to pick up this book, as it hits a bit home for me, being adopted myself. As for mothers in books, I, too, had worried over the rather strong appearance, or rather, disappearance, of good mothers in reading. But then, I thought about it, and people generally think that in writing a story, the first tragedy is to lose your mother or to lose that innocence and love you should have with your mother, so the drama or adventure begins there. How many Grimm, Anderson or Aesop's Tales began with a troubled childhood? I'll have to think on that. For me, most notably, I would have to say Violet Bridgerton for Best Mom and Araminta for most Evil Mom in Romances I've read recently. As for Romance vs Women's Fiction... well, I'm more of a Science Fiction/Fantasy kinda gal, so I haven't read much of either lately...

Janga said...

Thanks, Dena. You make an interesting point, and there are a lot of dead mothers and evil stepmothers in fairy tales. The only "good mother" that comes to mind is in that Andersen tale of the totally self-sacrifial, ultimately submissive mother--not what we want to see in our books.

I haven't read enough SF/F to make generalizations, but I can think of one extraordinary mother from those genres--Bujold's Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. Can you imagine the challenges of rearing Miles?

Anonymous said...

I shall have to look that one up! :) You've stumped me on that one.

I hope I didn't jinx your post :( it's eerily quiet (and there's one for last week: quiet, quit, quite as pet peeves for misspellings)

quantum said...

I haven't read Susan Mallery yet but have one of hers on my TBR pile called 'Delicious'. Its about cooking I think.

Mallery is another author that I really must get round to trying.

I have just finished an audio version of Kristin Hannah's 'Winter Garden' (recommended by you Janga .... thanks once again!).

I found this a compelling read and was almost moved to tears by Vera's description of Stalinist Russia and the siege of Leningrad. When in Iceland she finds Anya whom she had thought killed by a German bomb, and just misses meeting her former husband, also thought killed in Russia, my eyes definitely misted over. Its a helluva read!

I think that in Russia, Vera is an example of a good mother, protecting her children in Leningrad. She becomes a bad mother in America with the children of her second marriage, for very good reasons unbeknown to the children. After relating her story to the children though, she becomes a good mother again!

Killed two birds with one stone. *grin*

In women's fiction I think I will try more of Hannah's work and will also read more of Luanne Rice. I find both to be superbly compelling writers.

On the romance side I still have many (new to me) authors to try out! *smile*

Janga said...

No jinxes, Dena. Some weeks are just quiet ones. The stats let me know that the blog is being read. It's just that few people are commenting.

If you haven't tried Lois McMaster Bujold, you should. The Vorkosigan series goes back more than 20 years now. I haven't read the most recent one myself, but I'll get to it eventually.

Janga said...

Q, Delicious is the first book in Maller's Buchanans series. There are three more--Irresistible, Sizzling, Tempting. They're good, but I think her new Fools Gold series is even better.

I'm so glad you liked Hannah's Winter Garden. I found it one of those haunting books that just won't go away. She has a new one, Night Road that will be released March 22. She's another of my autobuys.

PJ said...

Wonderful blog, Janga! Mallery is an auto-buy for me and I've been looking forward to her new book.

I read both romance and women's fiction and have noticed the same as you as pertains to mothers. You've named some of my favorites - Violet Bridgerton, Nadia Stanislaski, Anna MacGregor - who always come to mind when the discussion turns to good mothers.

A new mother on the scene that I've been enjoying is Brooklyn's mother in Kate Carlisle's bibliophile mysteries. She's also an aging hippie who often comes across as a flake but, beneath all the New Age idiosyncrasies, is a smart, savvy, loving woman who is fiercely devoted to her children.

Kristin Hannah is a wonderful author! I've fallen behind a bit with her books. Must remedy that!

Janga said...

Oh, PJ, I didn't think about mysteries. Kate Carlisle's character is a great example. I'll have to give this more thought. In my favorite mystery series,Deborah Knott's mother is dead, but her MIL is a terrific character. And the mother-daughter relationship gets considerable attention in Margaret Maron's other series, the Sigrid Harald books.

I think you will really enjoy Already Home, and Kristin Hannah's books are definitely worth catching up with.