Mothers and daughters: Noelle, Minnie and Martha

I somehow, quite unintentionally have ended up reading 3 books lately that explored difficult mother-daughter relationships.

First cab off the rank was former Radio New Zealand presenter, now podcaster and writer, Noelle McCarthy's memoir, Grand.

It's a soul-clenching read which jumps to and fro in McCarthy's life documenting her beginnings in Cork, as the daughter of an alcoholic mother and it's this central relationship that colours and nudges her life in various directions including towards alcoholism herself. 

McCarthy sets the scene of her childhood in Cork and its various embarrassments, which include her mother, in such painterly detail you can almost smell the sticky carpet of the pub her mother hasn't yet been barred from. To say this relationship is a difficult one is putting it mildy - McCarthy is hostile and resentful towards her mother (aren't most teens?) but this youthful defiance doesn't stop her from falling into drinking as an adult once she moves to New Zealand. She's perhaps not the same kind of alcoholic as her mother but does it matter? The damage to relationships is just as real. And throughout the book we pop in and out of her last visit with her mother, when she was dying. By then Noelle is the mother of a daughter herself. It's a painfully honest book about the awkward, difficult nature of families and their legacies and the way one woman has navigated her way through these, along with mistakes and bumps in the road and the general irritations of life. But in the end there's a measure of forgiveness and an appreciation for the broken beauty that these challenges can offer. I cried reading it and I doubt I'm the only one.

Actor Minnie Driver's book, Managing Expectations, is quite different but offers another perspective on mothers and daughters. Driver's book is a memoir but in the style of a series of essays each focusing on a different period or episode in her life. These follow more or less chronologically but they sometimes jump forward in chunks of time that aren't always clear.

It begins with her mother's decision to leave her and her sister Kate's father:

In the UK, in 1976, women were finally allowed to apply for a mortgage without a male co-signer. In that same year, my mother decided to leave my father and got to experience what an anomaly of social progression the mortgage thing actually was. As my parents weren't married, the judge in the family court decreed that for my mother to retain custody of me and my sister, Kate, she had to: (1) be married; (2) have bought a house; and (3) have us in school by the time she had relocated. The amount of time the judge gave her to accomplish all thesse things was seven weeks.

What impossible nonsense has been thrown at women down through the ages, and how tirelessly do they continue to rise to the challenge.

Not to be outdone by the family court, Minnie's mother secures all 3 in the required timeframe. The unfairness of the criteria for retaining custody are even more suprising when you consider that Minnie's father was married to someone else and had been for the 16 years he'd also been in a relationship with Minnie's mother. It's impressive from a maternal determination point of view and depressing from a legal one. 

Driver's book is a thoughtful and poignant one. She describes different periods of her life and the struggles that went along with them in a way that's immediate as well as reflective. There's a definite lean towards learning from these incidents, whether it's being sent home from holiday in Barbados early by herself (she was 10) or getting an agent, or being broken up with by Matt Damon. Her reflections on the impact of fame are both amusing and horrifying:

Becoming famous was like everyone else had taken hallucinogenic drugs and I was the giant talking mushroom in their trip. It was hardly noticeable at first, people would smile in my direction sometimes, but it could have been at something happening behind me; then the next thing I knew, a guy was lying in the gutter as I'd get out of my car, trying to take a picture of my vagina.

Fame - the caboose to the engine of my wanting to act - presented a psychological paradox that was unexpected: wanting to be seen, but not that much.

Throughout her mother and sister both have a strong presence, though her relationship with her mother, who she clearly loved very much, is sometimes strained as different generations and their expectations rub abrasively against each other. Minnie did not take to the sudden appearance of a Step-father, for instance. Minnie's mother became sick while she was writing the book and the last essay is heart-breaking in the way it documents the sudden news of her illness and subsequent death. At one point she describes receiving bad news over the phone in the supermarket, gripping the supermarket trolley handle and crouching to the floor while bemused shoppers do their best to ignore her anguish.

After these two books, I have chosen to avoid any more "mother dying at the end" books for a while.

Fortunately the mother doesn't die at the end of my next read, the novel Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, but she does feature as a source of pain and embarrassment to the protagonist, Martha.

At the beginning of the story, Martha's marriage to Patrick has fallen to pieces. In the aftermath we learn a little about their relationship; he is long suffering, she does not want children, he is a doctor, she a writer. Over the course of things we circle back to their beginning when they met as teenagers and the torments and disappointments of Martha's life start to unfold.

She suffers from some form of mental illness that sometimes looks like depression and sometimes something else entirely. There a periods when she can't get out of bed. There are episodes when her behaviour is awful. She makes bad decisions and struggles to figure herself out. She is often on medication but it's not clear whether it actually helps. None of this sounds very fun, and it's not, but Meg Mason is incredibly funny and imbues the characters in her book with the kind of scathing wit that is a joy to read. Martha's sister, Ingrid, for my money gets some of the best comedy moments in a book that is full of funny little quips, asides and commentary.

Take, for instance, Ingrid's attitude during the marriage counselling workshop that her husband Hamish organises for them to attend:

In the conflict resolution module, the facilitator shared that sometimes, in the middle of an argument, he or his partner might say something along the lines of , 'Hey, let's  have a time out! Let's go and get burgers!' He said that it worked in almost every instance, especially in conjuction with sticking to I statements, and asked if there were any questions.

Ingrid raised her hand and, without waiting, asked if say, a husband was constantly getting his wife pregnant - with boys - and provided as much help with them as someone with a secret second family, and the best me-time the wife had had in the last fourteen months was during an MRI, but the husband's main worry was how much Botox his wife was having, not that she was so desperately exhausted and unhappy she fantasised all the time about being sent for another MRI, and they were always fighting, would the burger thing work then?

Hamish turned to self-help audio books after that.

Martha's relationship with her mother isn't great. Her mother is a sculptor of "minor" importance who has a drinking problem and is often difficult. Her father, a well-meaning poet is better but neither of her parents knows quite what to do with her. As Martha's life unravels and she starts to figure out some things about herself (she has not always been honest with the reader or herself) her relationship with her mother becomes more important, both as a problem she needs to address, and eventually as something that offers a tentative kind of hope.

It's a brilliantly written novel with, yes, a sometimes unlikeable protagonist but even as Martha is terrible her humour, and that of the people around her is the glue that keeps the whole thing readable and makes it a joy (though a drama-filled one).

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