I Don't Know How She Does It

Living in Fear of the Muffia
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 23 2002 4:21 PM

I Don't Know How She Does It

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Dear Maria,

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Yikes. Morning sick on the subway in New York? You poor lamb! But you managed, didn't you? Motherhood makes you tough and vulnerable in equal measures.

I'm glad you brought up the topic of Kate's whatever-it-was with Jack Abelhammer. One of the things that keeps this novel from being serious (and I don't mean because it's funny; some of the most important books are as hilarious as they are sad) is Pearson's disinclination to allow her heroine to make any real mistakes. Of course, if Kate did the nasty with Jack, then she would be unsympathetic. You will notice that her initial sexy e-mail to Jack wasn't even herfault; it was a funny come-on meant for a girlfriend, but she sent it to him by mistake because she was too tired. She didn't sleep with him for the same reason. No choice between right and wrong, the lynchpin of all great novels, just fatigue, which motivates every last bit of her behavior. Not her fault! Too tired!

Though I can hardly blame Pearson. I can't imagine anyone who would want to touch this topic (except maybe Fay Weldon): that powerful, successful women might just be as likely to enjoy something on the side as their male counterparts. I once did a story for a major women's magazine on being the alpha breadwinner and interviewed a number of other women who support their families. One woman and I were chuckling about how we'd turned not into our mothers, but our fathers. She said she could see how men took up with their secretaries. Sometimes, you just need to be thought gorgeous and funny and appealing, because most of the time you feel like an utter wreck (a point Pearson makes very well about Kate, then backs away from).  I quoted my source, then was asked to rewrite the paragraph 13 times: the editor kept insisting I qualify it by saying this woman has a happy marriage and would never think of cheating. (How would I know?) This, in a magazine I can't even keep in the bathroom, for fear my 10-year-old stepson will glimpse the nearly naked, trussed up, and oiled models in a near lesbian ménage in the Christian Dior ads.

But I digress. The point is, Kate may have been busy, and Kate may have been overwhelmed with guilt, but she never made any questionable choices which she then had to live with. Kate is guilty, always guilty, even though she hasn't done anything but try to please everyone around her, consummate female behavior since God was a boy.

Another example of this: Kate's dealing with the Muffia, those disapproving stay-at-home moms who are way too involved in micromanaging their children's lives. It didn't track. Here we have a woman from modest circumstances with no advantages, who made it to Cambridge on her smarts. Surely she had to have backbone to get so far, and yet she's as sensitive as a middle-schooler to the least bit of perceived criticism from other moms.

Motherhood changes you, but not in the way Pearson intimates. It doesn't make you more worried about what some idiot thinks, but less. Who has the time, for one thing? In the much-discussed opening scene, Kate is "distressing" store-bought minced pies to take to Emily's post-caroling concert at school. It's a nice piece of gentle satire, but also a stupid waste of time, which Kate never seems to realize. Or she realizes it but does it anyway. A large part of being a parent lies not in being your child's personal valet but in passing on—here comes the dreaded word—values. Where is the part where Kate grows to the point where she can tell her daughter that it doesn't matter what people think?

I feel like I'm coming down too hard on the book, which I did actually enjoy. You mentioned the Maureen Dowdisms yesterday; I fell for those! I felt I was in good hands with Pearson. The much-honored journalist in her succeeded in creating a smart heroine that embodies a genuine, intractable problem: How does a woman satisfy her need to work and her need to mother? But the first time-novelist in her didn't have an answer. I think I'm just disappointed.

As for your question about her children … well, er, um … I'm entering dangerous territory here … but … her 5-year-old, Emily, was a brat. And not because Kate works, but because she never tells her no. There's a bit where Emily wants pink frosting on her birthday cake and at the eleventh hour changes her mind to yellow. Naturally Kate goes through hilarious contortions to assure the kid gets yellow (more evidence that she's such a good mom!). I went through almost the exact situation once, and my kid had to live with her original choice, because it was the one she made. But then, I'm so mean. Just ask my 9-year-old.

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