By Lisa Taddeo, published 2021
I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase “tour-de-force” but it’s what comes to mind with this book. I initially had a difficult time getting into the novel because the narrator is a bit strange and probably a mentally ill. Joan is a bit like Eleanor Oliphant except that she is extremely self-aware and strikingly intelligent. What I appreciated is that Joan is cold and deadpan without alienating the reader. I felt as though I grew to know her better, to understand her behavior and empathize with her over the course of the novel. Others that attempt this kind of character often don’t work for me, such as in The School for Good Mothers.
The pacing of the novel is absolutely impeccable — I was never bored with Joan’s interiority, her many odd interactions with people, or with her manipulations. Her childhood trauma is deftly relayed in bits as Joan moves across the country after an ex commits suicide and her hopes of a different relationship are dashed entirely. We don’t know precisely what she’s looking for in California for many pages, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.
Joan uses men, and is abused by them, all her life. Her parents both died when she was young and she was subsequently raised by a (now also dead) aunt who provided an alternative style of child-rearing. In California she lives in a compound of sorts with three other men, gets a job at a cafe, and winds up taking care of a teenager when she can hardly get by herself. She has been rich and poor, depending on the level of her inheritance or adoration by a rich man for decades. In short, her life is a mess, but it becomes clear that it’s much worse than she lets on.
Joan often dwells on her parents. She adored them both but was often rejected by her mother, who stewed in her own personal issues and caused great pain in her daughter. During one particular memory Joan observes, “Why did I always want to be around my mother? She didn’t make me feel terribly loved. She didn’t give herself up for me, the way many mothers did for their children. At the same time, besides taking the sun and eating chicken wings, she also wasn’t living for herself.” There is so much in this. Based on several instances shared in the novel, it seems obvious that Joan’s mother was not maternal. She was not generous with her time or attention, and often pushed Joan away from a young age, when she was desperate for attention and love. The unspoken expectation for mothers is consistently that they give everything of themselves to their children. The alternative is deemed selfish. This is unfair, for mothers are people too, with desires and ambition apart from their children. At the same time, Joan does note that her mother was not living for herself, either. So what was she doing?
We don’t get much of an answer about Joan’s mother, but it does seem she was a self-absorbed person, possibly with her own unexplored emotional trauma. Both Joan’s parents were self-serving and negligent, and this of course feeds into my stern belief that not everyone should have children. Joan has suffered through all of her life due to the choices her parents made. I would never expect Joan’s mother to be entirely absorbed with her daughter, but she certainly did not seem interested in parenting.
Taddeo is the author of the blockbuster Three Women, a non-fiction work about three different women, their relationships to men, their emotional scars, and the impact it all has on their lives and the choices they make. It is an incredible book and the research Taddeo did for that book is clearly working hard in the novel. Four stars.