A review of b-mother by Maureen O’Brien

 

Like most first novels by a gifted writer, the abundance of invention and everything that goes with it is overwhelming. It’s impossible to fault a writer for this. Her next book may be more spare and controlled but it cannot be a disappointment and I will look forward to her future work very eagerly.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

b-mother
by Maureen O’Brien
Harcourt
2007, ISBN 0-15-101398-5, $24.00, 276 pages

Maureen O’Brien has taught writing at several colleges and universities. This is her first novel.

In b-mother a very young unmarried mother gives up her child for adoption. Everyone that she could have counted on has let her down, the child’s father, her own father, her mother. She survives because she is a survivor, a little feisty, capable of riding out the long course of sorrows and disappointments that constitute her life. Her sole trustworthy companion is Shell, her childhood friend who remains loyal and supportive.

This book engaged me deeply and at a very personal level. Two of my children are adopted, and one would need to be very dead of soul not to think often of the biological parents of a young man and a young woman who have become indescribably precious to me.

But b-mother is not a sermon in fiction, but a novel that lives very capably a life of its own and has no intention of fulfilling some textbook illustrations.

Hillary Birdsong, the heroine and narrator of b-mother, had an older brother. He died in a fraternity hazing incident. Her parents, in an effort to spare her, concealed the details of his death from her. This book is about coming to terms and Hillary can’t rest until she has faced everything that she fears and the book thus becomes a coming of age novel in the best sense in that its heroine arrives at wisdom with many of her hopes fulfilled and all past ruptures with her distraught and limited parents made whole.

O’Brien writes very well. She selects from all the possible choices precisely those that are most telling. Here is a passage chosen at random. It’s a description of the mother of Hillary’s roommate at college, a troubled and troubling young woman named Simone. “I recognized Simone’s mother without being introduced to her. An emaciated woman in black slacks and diamond tennis bracelets, she had such big teeth that it was impossible for me not to think of the wolf in ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ the better to eat you with, my dear. Her stilettos were pointy and high and yet she stood grounded and steady as if wearing ballet flats. She moved like a two-legged spider outside the gallery and lit a cigarette with what looked like a solid gold lighter, with a flame as big as a blowtorch.”

Like most first novels by a gifted writer, the abundance of invention and everything that goes with it is overwhelming. It’s impossible to fault a writer for this. Her next book may be more spare and controlled but it cannot be a disappointment and I will look forward to her future work very eagerly.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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