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In the title story to Natalie Serber’s first 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 fiction debut occupies this fraught territory—the complexities of intimacy and animosity between mothers and daughters. The collection intersperses stand-alone pieces that look at frictions daughters bring to mothers, while the linked stories center on the relationship of a single mother and her daughter, Ruby and Nora Hargrove, in which the complications tend to arise from the mother’s side. But no matter which angle Serber’s writing from, she delivers authority and insight.
She also writes with great style. Serber’s portrayals are smart and perceptive. The pace of her stories moves at an impressive clip, and the narrative voice is 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 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.
The young therapist’s assessment is funny because it’s so blatantly youth-centric, while the drama comes from Cassie’s inability to speak her mind and anger obscured by doubt and years of nurturing others. This inability frustrates many of the mothers in these stories, who seek to hold this negative capability—love and the deprivation of love—without losing their minds.
Serber’s wit and flair for sentences makes a great foil for her subject, and the humor in these stories, as in Moore’s, contains dark undercurrents. Serber is also great with the quick, keen insight. A new mother traveling by plane with her infant (“This is So Not Me”) thinks “Already I regret this blouse,” and describes marriage to a math professor twenty-five years her senior as “another in the series of nondecisions that my parents say make up the arc of my life.” Serber is also deft with sensory detail. A veterinarian’s exam room smells like “ammonia, pee and animal fright.” Sheets after sex are “sour and metallic,” and there is a parochial school office “with the leather desk blotter, the dark wooden crucifix and the rye-toast smell hanging in the air.”
There are eight linked stories that follow Ruby Hargrove from college, through daughter Nora’s birth, and single motherhood in the nineteen seventies. We meet Ruby first in college (“Ruby Jewel”), returning home to Florida from New York, her suitcase filled with dirty laundry brought for her embittered mother to wash. Father and daughter’s first stop from the train station is The Avenue for drinks, a bar Ruby has been going to with her dad since childhood. From that scene, in which father and daughter knock back a few in a grimy bar, we see the failed dreams of Ruby’s parents and the tragedy of an older sister who died when Ruby was an infant. It’s this sad family story, we can guess, that is behind Ruby’s choices and her ambivalence about motherhood. She’s a free-spirit whose needs compete with her daughter’s, and it’s Nora who loses out. Ruby’s peripatetic life gives Nora an uneasy rootlessness and an awareness beyond her years. When, for example, Nora’s cat contracts worms and goes to the vet (“Manx”), it’s Ruby that gets all the attention, and Nora takes note of the odd encounter. “Even Nora had the good sense to know parasites and flirtation were a bad combination.”
In the end, we come to know Nora more intimately. She is, after all, the outsider, the daughter who inhabits Ruby’s world while watching from the sidelines. When at fourteen Nora travels to meet her father for the first time (“A Whole Weekend of My Life”), Ruby advises, “Be careful. He can be charming.” Meeting her father, Nora is charmed, but soon learns his wife and children know nothing about her: “‘I’m a secret?’ My heart clunked in my chest, like it had just hit the absolute hard bottom of my story.”
Near the end of the collection, when Nora is in college and living with an older boyfriend, Thad, we understand what drives the frictions between mother and daughter. Nora has had to cultivate her own brand of steadiness to survive, while Ruby finds the new boyfriend and his stability tedious. “He’ll make you soft. He doesn’t make you work for it. Trust me, you’ll soon be bored.”
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.