MommyLit: Book genre of fading dreams, but small joys


IN THE PUBLISHING WORLD, there seems to be a sub-genre of books that can best be described as MommyLit.

This is not to be confused with ChickLit, which usually chronicles the chaotic dating / work lives of twentysomethings.

And it is not the same as BabyLit, which usually chronicles the conflicted pregnancy / adoption stories of thirtysomethings.

Instead, MommyLit chronicles the lives of women of middle age, watching their dreams, their children and their youthful bodies depart until the sands of time run out and the mind drifts away.

British writer Helen Simpson is one of the best of the MommyLit authors and in her new collection of 11 short stories, In the Driver's Seat, she finds humor -- albeit dark humor -- in the despair of women in their middle years and the gumption with which they face their disappointments.

For Simpson's characters, life can be devastatingly limited and unfulfilling, but still funny and hopeful and lovely.

In "Early One Morning," Zoe examines her life as she carpools her third and youngest child to school. While the children chatter, she ponders the sleeplessness of her busy life and what it has done to her memory. She fantasizes about life after her son George grows up and goes away.

"She, Zoe, saw her memory banks as having shriveled for lack of sleep's welcome rain. ... When she was old and free and in her second adolescence, she would sleep in royally, till midday or one."

Zoe also ponders the inevitability of another wave of divorces among her friends -- and perhaps her own -- as their nests empty, and then she thinks of the fancy coffee that will be her post-carpool reward. She plans to enjoy it alone, outside the company of her fellow mothers and the "steady self-justificatory hum of women telling one another the latest version of themselves."

(Simpson's characters all have relentless interior monologues.)

It is dismal rumination until the car empties of children and her son -- telling friends he has forgotten his math book -- rushes back to the car "and leaning across as though to pick up something from the seat beside her, smudges her cheek with a hurried -- but (thought Zoe) unsurpassable kiss."

It is like that for all mothers, I think: The sublime amid the tedious and the heartbreaking.

In "The Door," a woman begins to emerge from her grief over the death of her married lover as a carpenter replaces the front door damaged by a break-in.

"Grief kept indoors grows noxious, I thought, like a room that can't be aired: mold grows, plants die. I wanted to open the windows but it wasn't allowed."

But when the stolid carpenter -- dependable in a way her lover had not been -- warns her to leave the new door ajar so the paint can dry "or it will rip away and leave raw wood when you open it again," she assents.

"I can recognize good advice when I hear it. This was what I needed to know."

Simpson punishes the young for their youth in "Up at a Villa," giving them a glimpse of their futures.

A group of skinny-dipping teens eavesdrops on an unhappy married couple struggling with a fussy baby. The kids are repelled by the flabby bodies of the new parents on whom they spy, but they fail to see the fading portrait of adult romance that is just as off-putting.

"'She's hideous,'" whispered Tina. 'Look at that gross stomach, it's all in folds.' She glanced down superstitiously at her own body, the high breasts like halved apples, the handspan waist."

The title of Simpson's collection, In the Driver's Seat, is full of irony. None of her characters are in the driver's seat, including the character in the title story who can't get her increasingly abusive boyfriend to slow down. A friend watches from the back seat, where she also has a view of their unhappy future.

Just as ChickLit has a kind of frantic aimlessness about it, like an episode of Sex and the City, MommyLit has about it an atmosphere of loneliness and powerlessness.

But Simpson's characters also share a determination to get through, to make do, to tough it out, to make the best of things.

It is what the characters in ChickLit will someday do, too, I think.

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