BOOK REVIEW: THE OTHER MOTHER by RACHEL M. HARPER (aka my favourite book of the year)

The Other Mother is, to me, a perfect novel: a masterclass in character work and prose, skillfully structured and thematically rich. It’s a multigenerational family saga, one that embodies just how capacious and powerful that genre can be. In saying that this novel is a “multigenerational family saga,” I’m also saying that it’s able to encompass so much: the thorny and complicated family dynamics, the tangled threads that by turns connect and bind these characters together, the change and growth from one generation to the next, and the expansive sense of time and place that is facilitated by a narrative that unfolds over the course of decades. What’s more, it all comes together with such impressive command; it is a real testament to Harper’s skill that she is able to write a story that is so large in its scope and yet so intimate in its focus; the narrative is at once sweeping and minute, giving you access to a plethora of interconnected characters and colouring in their histories for you, but also allowing you to get to know and understand them in an incontrovertibly real and grounded way. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”–what we get here is both a sense of the whole and of the parts, of the family entire and of the person in particular.

“He wondered if time was a form of love, a way of dolling out affection in reasonable pieces, in parts small enough that you weren’t aware of their size, and of what was slowly disappearing from your own form as you gave them away.”

Part of why The Other Mother manages to so effectively balance scope with detail is because of the way it’s structured. The novel is split into seven “books,” each of which consists of seven chapters, and which focuses on a specific family member. We begin with Jenry, who is the linchpin of the narrative, and then branch out to the key characters connected to him: his mother, his “other mother,” his uncle, his grandfather, his other grandfather, and so on. And there is not a single section in the novel that is even close to lacking in any way. Certainly, some characters are more important than others–Juliet, Jenry’s “other mother,” in particular is the real heart and soul of this book–but regardless of how much they shape the narrative, every one of them gets a section that fleshes out their inner life and highlights their place within the novel’s core family. Usually, with stories that switch POVs from one character to the next, I tend to dread that switch because I inevitably get attached to a character and don’t want to leave them for another’s POV. With The Other Mother, though, that was never the case. Part of why I adored this novel is because I trusted it so much: I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and so I was never nervous going from one POV to the next. That is to say, I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and her writing never let me down. (That being said, my favourite sections were easily Juliet’s and Jasper’s–Jasper’s especially I will probably never forget; it was that poignant.)

“She fingers a groove in the soft wood, wonders why time wears some things down, makes them softer, more malleable, yet other things like bones and brick–things that make up structures, that are designed to carry weight–become more brittle.”

Implicit in everything I’ve praised so far about this novel is the fact that it is extraordinarily well-written. Harper writes with piercing clarity, her prose lean and lucid, allowing the story to organically and seamlessly unfold over the course of the novel. And she has such remarkable control of this story, too. A lot happens in The Other Mother–there is plenty of loss and grief, secrets and lies–and in another writer’s hands, it could’ve easily been a morose, overwrought melodrama. Under Harper’s control, though, the prose and tone are pitch perfect, measured without being cold, moving without being sentimental. Every once in a while, I read a novel that makes me want to stop for a second to process just how impressive its writing is, and The Other Mother is one of those rare novels. Scenes with dialogue–literally any conversation between these characters–are especially brilliant. You’re able to glean so much about these characters by how they talk, what they take from conversations, how they interpret what’s said to them, what they notice, and what they don’t. The way that Harper renders the minute details of her characters’ demeanour and mannerisms throughout these scenes is just exquisite; it’s what I mean when I talk about the piercing clarity of the writing, and what’s more, these details–observations, habits, quirks–recur throughout the novel, adding to the sense that these are fully fleshed out characters whose idiosyncrasies carry on throughout the years that the narrative spans.

“His mother used to always say, I can recover from any death but my own, but he thinks now that it’s the other way around: your own death is the easy one; what befalls the people you love most in the world, that is the most difficult thing to survive.”

The last thing I want to talk about is the thematic focus, because The Other Mother is incredibly sympathetic and tender in the way that it approaches its very complex exploration of family. As I’m sure is evident from the title, the novel is interested in examining what motherhood looks like outside the bounds of what’s dictated by patriarchy and everything that attaches to it. In taking motherhood as one of its central thematic concerns, though, the novel is also able to more broadly interrogate and look at the family as a unit. It’s interested in asking what makes a “mother,” yes, but it’s also interested in asking what makes a family. We look at all sorts of family dynamics, here–mothers and sons, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters–and to be sure, none of those dynamics are ever simple or straightforward. It’s a book that very much underscores how family at once drains and sustains us, holds us up and lets us down, and the story is adamant in depicting these family members as flawed. After finishing the novel, I watched a bunch of interviews where Harper talked about how she really had to take her time with this novel because she wanted to be able to embody every character’s POV without judgement, regardless of whether she agreed with their decisions or not. And that’s really the crux of the novel, I think: you don’t agree with all these characters’ decisions, but you do sympathize with all of them, and understand why they made those decisions. The beauty of the story is that you always have to hold these two things in tension: the fact that these characters hurt each other, and the fact that they do so not out of malice, but out of love.

The Other Mother is so many things, but more than anything it is a novel that is just brimming with love. Heartbreaking but hopeful, it’s written so feelingly, a product of such care and nuance on the part of the author, that what you get in the end is just nothing short of brilliant. I cannot recommend it enough.

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More of a 3.5 stars, but I still really loved this.

I love me a good angsty romance, and A Lady for a Duke was angsty, and then some. Two chapters into this and I was already so deeply invested. This novel has such a great setup, and Hall does an excellent job at not just drawing it out–the pining!!!!–but also sticking the landing when it comes to the payoff. I loved our two main characters, Viola and Gracewood, and even more I just loved how much they cared for and took care of each other. I especially enjoyed the fact that they each got internal conflicts that felt hefty–that’s not to say that this is a dark romance, per se, but that these characters’ growth over the course of the novel felt really earned to me. They each have to work to grow and to make sense of who they are and what they want, and it’s exactly for that reason that when they do actively decide to be together, it feels all the more rewarding.

If there’s one critique that I have about A Lady for a Duke, though, it’s that the characters admitted their feelings for each other a bit earlier than I would’ve liked. It was nice that their feelings were out in the open and they could be safe in the knowledge that the other character felt the same way about them, but I felt like having them be so honest early on–I think maybe it was around halfway through the novel?–meant that it deflated some of that tension that made the first half so enjoyable and compelling. I wouldn’t have wanted them to keep everything bottled up, either, but I feel like there could’ve been a way to keep some of that tension going whilst also having them be honest with each other.

Overall, though, this was an excellent romance; everyone on my feed has been loving it, and I’m glad to say that I, too, loved it.

Thanks so much to Forever for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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Defenestrate is a short, moving novel that is about, as its title implies, falling. The premise is simple: the main character and her twin brother come from a family that is seemingly plagued with a falling curse, all manner of aunts, cousins, and uncles falling from buildings, ladders, railings–you name it. The novel, then, is a series of reflections on this theme. Written in short vignettes, it examines the many forms and instances of falling, personal, historical, and conceptual. And I think in concentrating its energy on this particular theme, Defenestrate is able to really cleverly develop both its story and characters. The theme gives the novel’s very short chapters a cohesiveness that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, in addition to being an effective conduit for developing its characters.

“There’s a superstition in our family about falling–a kind of tight-lipped joke that’s no longer a joke because it’s happened too often over the years: cousins leaning against railings that wouldn’t hold their weight, uncles losing their footing while cleaning leaf debris from slimy gutters, aunts toppling from ladders, their spines folding up on themselves like coat hangers. Something in our bodies wants to fall, blood magnetized to pavement, iron and concrete greeting each other across a stretch of air, the downward plunge and crack, like a pink Easter egg dropped from a window–we splinter that easily.”

More than anything, I think I was just really taken with this idea of a falling curse. Falling, in Defenestrate is about a lot of things–perspective, Buster Keaton, suicide–but it’s also more critically about narrative: what kind of narrative emerges from this supposed family falling curse? who gets to tell this narrative over the generations? how do the individual characters take up this family narrative for themselves?

But this is not just a thematically focused novel. As broad as it is in its exploration of falling, it is also a very insular novel: all of its reflections come from one character, Marta, who becomes increasingly isolated over the course of the novel. The more she becomes fixated on the theme of falling and its various personal and historical reverberations, the more she retreats within herself, sinking further and further into a kind of obsession with the theme. And at its heart, Defenestrate is really about Marta: the vignettes we get are not just about falling, but also about her; what she decides to tell us about falling speaks to her own mental state, too, to how adrift and lonely she is.

“When I picture the city now, I see it from overhead. Bird’s-eye. A long, lonely aerial view looking down onto orange clay rooftiles curved like shells of snails. The city shrinks, small enough to be covered with a palm–my palm, my twin brother’s. We both seem to remember those years from above, as if we were often sailing out over the streets that opened up into squares, the ice skating rink dusted blue, that high clocktower with its windows sealed shut, the bridge long spine of black bone straining across the bread-colorued water. And I guess it’s true that the city rises, tiered, made up of slopes and heights, spires and hilltops and towers–all these high places you could cimb, to get a better view of things, and I guess it’s aso true that I was always climbing them.”

All of this is to say, I really enjoyed this novel. I thought the thematic exploration was fascinating, and I loved how it became increasingly tied to Marta’s character development as the story went on. (I was also drawn to its focus on a brother-sister relationship, and in particular how codependency can manifest within that kind of dynamic.) That being said, I feel like a lot of the things I enjoyed about this book–mainly the short chapters and the writing–I also had qualms about. First, the writing, which was, on the whole, just great. From page one, I was immediately impressed with Branum’s writing, which is so evocative even as it is concise and pithy. Branum can write a damn good simile, and there are plenty of examples within the novel that speak to that. But–and here come the qualms–there are just too many similes in this book. I don’t generally mind similes, except that when there are so many of them–almost on every single page–they start to get a bit distracting and also just extremely noticeable.

As for the short chapters, I also liked and didn’t like them. On the one hand, The short chapters lend Defenestrate a kind of propulsive quality in that they make it go by so quickly. On the other hand, though, they also make it feel a bit fragmented as a narrative. Not so fragmented, because the theme does a good job of tying together all the novel’s vignettes, but I think I would’ve like more of a plot maybe, or at least some longer, more substantial chapters interspersed with the more brief conceptual ones.

On the whole, though, I thought Defenestrate was a great novel. It’s a slight novel, and maybe a slightly forgettable one, but it still manages to be very moving, and, barring some minor issues, memorably written.

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