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7.25.2011

Book Review: The Mother Who Stayed

The Mother Who Stayed
by Laura Furman
9781439194652

Laura Furman is best known for her work as the series editor for the O Henry Awards. Given to writers of short stories yearly, it is THE award to win if you're going to write short stories.

However, for someone who edits the best fiction out there, Furman is lacking. Perhaps an appropriate analogy would be letting Simon Cowell sing. You can judge, yes, but can you actually do what you're judging?

The book indeed has potential. Nine stories gathered here and presented in trios are supposed to act in conversation with on another. It is the way (or at least a way) a collection can work. Furman got the idea from music: "For me at least," she writes in an interview, included along with a reader's guide (you can tell what her marketing team was aiming for) "reading any type of fiction involves the same recognition, connection, and memory as when I listen to music." Like a concept album, each trio acts to inform each other piece to expand upon themes and motifs. It is, indeed, perhaps a way to put any short story collection together. But what was a great idea, falls flat for writer with a weak voice. Lily TUcks a blurb that is less of praise and more of an insult: "I kept thinking I was reading Alice Munro," she writes. BUt would be rather be like Alice Munro, or be the Laura Furman? Furman is obviously comfortable being a copy.

The first trio is perhaps the weakest of the three sets. Conncering Rachel Cantor, the three stories try to illuminate the (lack of a) relationship between Rachel and her mother Eva.  Class consciousness is touched upon briefly, but not fully developed and likewise, the relationship is only touched upon slightly and on the surface. But the trio is scattered brain. Whereas one story concentrates on the isolation Rachel has with her family another explores her isolation from her mother, another the usual isolation of adolescent. Given the way the book is organized, there no logic of how these stories would inform each other, let alone inform the whole collection that concentrates on mother-daughter relationships. The strongest story in the set is "The Hospital Room", which display so fully that tension between mother and daughter:

"Rachel's mother was no longer her mother....Other kids had a mother waiting in the kitchen when school was over to hand out cookies and milk, and as, How was school today? The mothers who worked came in at the end of the day with briefcases and the Times folded up, and kicked off their high-heel shoes and called for their daughters." 

It points to the expectations we have in our relationships, and the failures we have at not meeting them. This incongruity of expectations and reality is a running theme throughout the book--between Marian and her unclaimed daughter Dorothea, between Astrid and Sandra, Amber and Dinah. Yet the theme is never fully developed. Furman falls flat when trying to dig deeper (characters die halfway through the trios and their death and its meanings is not explored satisfactorily). Nothing is illuminated. Likewise, her characters are also not fully developed (besides Marian who borders on charicature, but is perhaps the most human of all the characters) and are at best lists of things they do and see (for example, read "The Blue Birds Come Today")

Overall, Furman lacks skill and is spot above the works of Rosemund Pilcher's domestic love stories. Her work does not shine light anything not already explored elsewhere in better fiction. Her prose verges on tedious with its lists of material details as if the telling of material details itself is enough to hold up a story.

This is the stuff of book clubs: her work concerns womanhood and aging, yet does not ever intend to reach out to any other audience and this is where Furman loses readers.

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