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Book Reviews: “Psycho Moms” Seems to Be the Theme Here

December 13, 2008

The day I had the flu, I read three novels from beginning to end. Two of them — Like a Thorn by Clara Vidal and The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin — were books Sarah had chosen for us to both to read and talk about. (That’s kind of how our “literature curriculum” works. 😀 Maybe I really am an unschooler after all. Or not. But I digress). I had picked up the other book, When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale, on the “New Fiction” shelf at the library. Coincidentally, they all focus on a similar theme — how children adapt to having an emotionally unstable mother.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale is narrated by nine-year-old Lawrence. He lives in England with his mother, Hannah, and his 3-year-old sister, Jemima, and he is estranged from his Scottish father. Hannah is convinced that the kids’ father is stalking them, and she becomes increasingly frightened. She and the children pack up and go to Italy. Hannah tries to build a life in Rome, where she lived happily as a young woman, with the support of many friends from her youth.

At the beginning of the novel, I didn’t question Hannah’s belief that her ex-husband had been stalking her. But I quickly realized her story didn’t ring true. Lawrence believes her unconditionally, though. As Hannah’s paranoia deepens, “finding” poison in their food and water and knives in one of the beds, it becomes clear that the children are on a terrifying ride. Interlaced with this story, told wholly from Lawrence’s point of view, are his thoughts about astronomy, which is his passion, and things he is learning from the “Horrible Histories” books on Roman emperors and popes. The bizarre instability of these historical figures and the mysteries of outer space, including black holes that can consume everything around them, create an interesting, dramatic metaphor for the events in his life, even as he remains innocent of what’s really going on.

I enjoyed this book, although it took me a while to get used to the writing style, which included deliberate errors in spelling and syntax to give the impression it was written by a child. I was fascinated by the way Lawrence shifted between being an adult-like caretaker for his mother and young sister, carefully monitoring his mother’s depression and anxiety and solving problems for her when she’s unable to cope, and being a “normal” nine-year-old kid, preoccupied with the toys he wants. When his mother is relatively stable, he becomes a slightly spoiled child, preoccupied with his books and toys. When she spirals downward, he becomes the “man” of the family again. I felt that this portrait of shifting roles in a troubled family rang true. I also found the plight of Hannah’s family compelling and terrifying.

Like a Thorn by Clara Vidal is a short French novel about an adolescent girl’s battle with what appears to be obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her troubles are rooted in her relationship with her mother, who teeters between being “Rosy Mom,” a effusively loving mother, and “Dark Mom,” who is angry and sometimes cruel. As a child and as a young teenager, Mélie becomes increasingly depressed and develops an increasingly complicated set of rituals and routines to “protect” herself. This infuriates her mother, who feels Mélie is a burden to her — a thorn in her side. Mélie’s father stands aside and does nothing to protect her. The first person to stand up to her mother, and try to understand what’s really going on, is a therapist.

I enjoyed the book, although I felt the characters were sketched lightly, and I found myself wishing it had been longer with more details. The author piqued my interest in Mélie, but never let me get to know her fully. And the story ended abruptly with Mélie meeting her therapist, leaving me wondering what happened next.

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin is a novel for young adults. Werlin described it as the darkest of her books. It focuses on two adolescent children, Matthew and Callie, and their struggle to survive and protect their young sister, Emmy. Their mother, Nikki, is dangerous and unpredictable. Their estranged father does not stand up for them, even after Nikki almost kills herself and her children by deliberately swerving the car into oncoming traffic. When Nikki starts stalking her ex-boyfriend, who has been the only stable adult in the kids’ lives, things get even more complicated.

I found Nikki’s character bizarre but believable. Her whole life is a warped drama starring herself (can we say severe Borderline Personality Disorder?) Her children’s lives focus on survival. As he fights to protect himself and his sisters, Matthew finds the dark side of his own nature. However, the book ends on an affirming and hopeful note, which is one thing I love about it. The kids eventually break free from their mother. Matthew and Callie form a deep bond, and through their struggles, they both discover the kind of people they want to become. Callie decides to become a doctor and help other children in jeopardy. And after having watched the adults in his life stand aside, doing nothing, Matthew understands one thing that is truly important to him in life — taking responsibility and standing firmly behind his loved ones.

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