mother garden

Posted: January 3, 2009 in literature

Book review

By Robin Romm.
191 pp. Scribner. $22.

Death Becomes Her

Published: July 8, 2007 NYT

Death may not be proud, but in “The Mother Garden,” Robin Romm’s whimsical and affecting debut collection, there’s nothing shy about it either. Here’s the first sentence of the first story: “My mother’s going to die.” The mom in question has cancer, like many of the mothers in this book, and Romm clearly knows the territory: in short order she describes the wheelchair and the oxygen tank, the bald scalp and the steroid bloating. But just when you’re thinking “Oxygen Network,” the story takes a sharp turn. The narrator, visiting her parents at their Oregon beach cabin, watches a young woman swim ashore, dressed in capri pants and a pink sweater. “What the hell?” the arrival snarls. “It would be nice of you to tell me what’s going on here.”
Fat chance. Despite their confident, straightforward prose and their crystalline surface gloss, which recall Ann Beattie’s early slice-of-life stories, Romm’s narratives — call them slice-of-death — turn out to revel in ambiguities and even a gentle magic. One narrator stumbles across her father naked in the desert, years after he abandoned her; another makes jewelry from the mysterious beads the autopsy lab finds in her mother’s stomach. In “The Arrival,” the story set on the Oregon coast, the narrator’s dying mother perks up for her guest in a way she hasn’t for her husband or daughter, and makes cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches. But who is the guest? We never find out for sure.

At their smartest and most striking, these stories are less about death than about the characters’ defensive crouch in the face of it. When the mother in “The Arrival” learns she has cancer, she goes shopping: “How could she die if she had a Swedish washing machine to pay off?” Other characters turn to alcohol, yoga and (especially) art, all to no effect; eventually, they will confront the same defeat and fury that one narrator notes in her mother. “A frightening combination,” the daughter says. “Defeat that won’t do you in and fury that can’t save you.”

Romm is also astute about the characters who don’t avert their eyes. In “Celia’s Fish,” a man sleeping with his dying wife’s best friend worries mordantly that she’s too attentive a nursemaid: “He can’t help but wonder sometimes if she’s a little bit attracted to the spectacle of decline.” That thought comes after he finds his daughter playing “hospital” with her dolls. “Why is it that no one around here can get enough of death?” he asks. “It’s happening right in front of them, what they all fear most.”

In writing so explicitly about illness and death and parents and children, there’s a risk of becoming mawkish or sentimental. It’s a risk Romm shrugs off. “No one wants to hear about mortality,” the narrator of “No Small Feat” acknowledges, sighing about her problems publishing her work. (I know, I know: a story about a death-haunted writer, by a death-haunted writer — but it’s actually one of the standouts, thanks to its great twist. The narrator’s boyfriend has secretly written his own story about her dying mother, and scored a big success with it.) “I don’t have a patent on death,” the narrator says. “I’d love to write stories about surfing teenagers, international spies, funny grandmothers, dogs that fly. But death is my map, the thing I’ve been living next to for years.”

In her embrace of the off-kilter (one story is aptly titled “The Tilt”), Romm is mining the same vein as Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz, whose recent collections have featured, respectively, a pumpkin-head family and a woman whose pregnancy lasts for years. But Romm is a close-up magician, more intimate and less instinctively fabulist, and most of her work leaves room for rational interpretation. Even the title story, about a woman who plants other people’s mothers in her backyard, makes it clear that the garden is basically an elaborate art installation. No magic here, Romm seems to insist.

But of course there is, and it’s the oldest kind we know: the ordinary incantation of words and stories to help us navigate the darkness and finally — for all that this impressive collection protests otherwise — to hold the end at bay.

Gregory Cowles is an editor at the Book Review.


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