Sisters Thea and Pavia grew up in the fictional Montana college town of Supernal during the 1980s. Supernal reads a bit like a cross between Bozeman and Billings, both in size and social environment, as well as location within Montana. Their mother, Dorothy, suffers from depression and erratic behavior, including throwing out the girls’ father, Walter, when Pavia was a sophomore in college.
He needed, she’d insisted that spring day, to See And Honor The Goddess In Her. And When He Had Done So, she had declared, standing on the concrete steps wearing a batik halter-top sundress inside which her large breasts joggled, suggesting colonial unrest then and only then Would He Be Permitted to Return.
Still, their parents never divorced. Walter kept in contact with Dorothy and made sure she was more or less okay, not too broke, and kept renting his own house. “He was never going to be happy,” if he stayed in the house with her. Now, ten years later, Pavia is living across the country in “the big city” with her husband, Jack. Thea has finished college, and Dorothy is as much of a mess as ever.
Then, Pavia calls to say she and Jack are separated, and she sounds distraught enough that Thea decides to go stay with her for awhile.
She talked me through the process of making an espresso, and thus I learned the essential skill of my generation. I also learned, as we talked about Jack’s absence, the essential and unconvincing story, which was:
She thought she loved him, but maybe she didn’t after all. Maybe she just needed something to do, or someone to (pretend to) love. (Maybe, admittedly, he did, too.) Maybe she discovered that he was not the person she thought he was or maybe it was her fault. Maybe she had changed? And it was sad but probably most likely, almost surely their breakup was all for the best in the long run.
My sister finished talking and looked at me in a way that I recognized with a little stab of fear as hope-filled.
“What did the asshole do?” The espresso machine hissed reinforcingly behind me.
Pavia frowned, shook her head no. “He not an asshole, Thea.”
That fear Thea feels over Pavia’s disconnect compounds the longer she stays and the situation becomes further complicated. Thea is also trying to have a decent, healthy relationship with a photographer named Eli, but she’s not particularly good at it. And their mother? Oh, their mother is becoming less and less able to take care of herself.
Interspersed throughout the story are short chapters speaking directly to a baby girl. They are bits of wisdom, but real wisdom that speaks directly to the frailty of this life. There are some thoughts on love, on sex, on need. The self.
First, everyone says: As Long as She’s Healthy. Then: As Long as She’s Happy. As if these are modest hopes, reasonable bargaining points in a negotiation with management. That’s All We Ask!
I’ll tell you truthfully, my darling: these are too much to ask for. I’m sorry.
But come down. Come here. I can promise you this: an appetite for silence. Loneliness, and ways to find it when you need to. How to hold yourself safe, apart, tight to the lowest rung.
Happiness! Yes, as if it were just that easy. A steady sense of happiness, for some people and certainly for Thea and Pavia is like saying, As Long as She’s an Astronaut! You know, I’ll get right on that.
Because Scott writes with such a grip on reality and all the self-destructive things we do to ourselves, she also has a particular talent for bleak humor see the comment about espresso-making. Thea is also aware that she is prone to metaphor and simile, and that she processes the world better by constructing these comparisons. Both women are afraid of becoming their mother.
Motherlunge is an excellent examination of anxiety over expectation, over inevitability, and what it means to be a fully-feeling adult. These characters desire a bit of numbness when their thoughts ache too intensely, and they wonder why they can’t be like “everyone else.” Kirstin Scott writes in a way that seems intuitive, honest, and full of love. Do seek out this book.
Full Disclosure: I read an Advance Reader Copy, obtained through the editor of Gently Read Literature (where this review originally appeared), so my pull quotes may vary slightly from the finished edition.