Shout Her Lovely Name, by Natalie Serber
In the title story to Natalie Serber’s debut story collection, the narrator offers a bit of advice—the kind you need if your daughter has an eating disorder and won’t talk to you:
Later, after you have eaten half the brownies and picked at the crumbling bits stuck to the pan, apologize to your daughter. She will tell you she didn’t mean it when she called you chubby. Hug her and feel as if you’re clutching a bag of hammers to your chest.
Only motherhood can bring up this mix of entanglement, devotion, and torment, and Serber’s stories occupy this fraught territory—the complexities of intimacy and animosity between
mothers and daughters. The collection intersperses stand-alone pieces that look at the frictions daughters bring to mothers, while the linked stories center on the relationship of a single mother, Ruby Hargrove, and her daughter, Nora, in which the complications tend to arise from the mother’s side—but no matter which stance Serber writwa from, she delivers authority and insight.
She also writes with great style—her portrayals are smart and perceptive, the pacing brisk, and the narrative voice intimate and pervasively self-aware. Serber’s characters, like those in stories by Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro, regard womanhood with a certain self-deprecating irony:
The therapist, in her Prada boots and black cashmere sweater, speaks in a low voice. She has very short hair and good jewelry. Stylish, you think; your daughter will like her.
Serber’s characters have a tendency to compare themselves with this kind of woman, the kind who if she has self-doubt doesn’t show it, who ably manages the dizzying and often contradictory codes of feminine personae—who wears Prada boots and good jewelry, is powerful or confident or capable without irony.
In the title story, from which the above excerpts are taken, the second person point-of-view and instruction-manual style echoes Moore’s “Self-Help” (which also inspired Pam Houston’s “How to Talk to a Hunter”), with a plot couched largely in the declarative:
Realize an expert is needed and take your daughter to a dietician. In the elevator on the way up, she stands as far away from you as she possibly can. Her hair, the color of dead grass, hangs over her fierce eyes.
The “you” is of course a proverbial veiled “I,” and Serber makes it her own, adding photographs of size 00 jeans, nutritional labels, and a recipe for birthday brownies.
The voice-driven story is one of Serber’s strengths and some of the book’s most vivid material can be found in the stories that frame the collection. Both feature daughters coming of age and mothers poised on the brink of a new phase in their lives. For the mothers, it’s a contradictory state, one of maturity and change, experience and uncertainty, and memories of youthful missteps they can’t quite shake. In the book’s concluding story, “Developmental Blah Blah,” Cassie, the middle-aged wife and mother of teenagers, is throwing a party for her fifty-year-old husband and can’t calm the doubt and bewilderment running in her head. Cassie manages her life with aplomb, but is beset by the thought that little lies ahead. In a session with her therapist, Seth, she asks about “developmental milestones in midlife”:
Pausing just long enough to show mild amusement, Seth told her that the sense of one’s life in a constant upward spiral vanishes. He gestured too, his finger describing a tiny tornado pointing forever higher. “That’s no more,” he’d said with his frustrating unflappable tone. If Seth didn’t (1) hang on her every word, (2) find her funny, and (3) sport a thick brown ponytail, which she fantasized about lopping off and stashing beneath her pillow, she might have slugged him for his cavalier nonchalance.
While there are mothers in this collection who willingly face the frustrations and happiness their daughters bring (“All Cassie knew for certain was that Edith was everything”), one imagines Ruby would view the quandaries and trials of motherhood—in the parlance of the time—as pretty much a head trip. “Take advantage of my experience,” she offers, but Nora’s not interested: “She wanted to make her own and unique mistakes. She was nothing like Ruby.”
You can read more from Natalie Serber at The Story Prize blog.
— Lauren Alwan