JUNE 13, 2018
OFFICIALLY, AIMEE MOLLOY’S debut novel, The Perfect Mother, is a thriller. You might call it “grip-lit,” a new term for an old thing: a good suspense novel by a woman. More accurately, by a woman and for women, which The Perfect Mother certainly is. We’ll come back to that part, but first, I don’t think this novel is a thriller at all. To me, it’s a horror story.
First, there’s the visceral horror of the plot. A group of Brooklyn parents who call themselves the May Mothers (there’s one dad; the moms nickname him Token) go out for a drink one hot July night, most leaving their babies for the first time. They’re two drinks in, just starting to relax, when one gets a frantic call. She’s asked Alma, her nanny, to babysit for the group’s one single mother that night. Alma put the baby, Midas, to sleep, and all seemed well — until she went to check on him and he was gone.
Soon, Baby Midas is a cause célèbre in New York. There are prayer vigils, press conferences, and magazine covers about Midas and his mother, Winnie. A cable host named Patricia Faith begins a round-the-clock campaign against Winnie, her friends, and any other mother who has the gall to leave the house before her child turns five. There are prayer vigils in Prospect Park, middle-aged women waving flyers that announce, “Child neglect is a crime,” then cite Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?”
Meanwhile, the rest of the May Mothers are frantic with guilt and fear. Guilt because they lured Winnie out for a drink and persuaded her to stop looking at the baby-monitor video on her phone — or, as Patricia Faith would have it, to “forget her nursing child.” Fear because they all went out, too. They all left their babies. Who knows why this happened to Winnie, not to one of them?
That’s the first horror: the it-could-happen-to-anyone kidnapping, the baby there one second and gone the next. The second horror is sneakier, and more interesting. Every woman in The Perfect Mother is haunted, and hunted, by the pressure to be exactly what the title suggests. The protagonists, Nell, Colette, and Francie, can’t go outside without strangers weighing in on their bodies, careers, and lives.
The opinions about what a mother should be come first and foremost from the media. There’s Patricia Faith and her prayer ladies, a smarmy New York Post reporter named Elliott Falk, and Nell’s boss at a thinly veiled Condé Nast. In one brilliant scene, Nell suggests that the company’s flagship magazine, Gossip!, “rise above” the Baby Midas scandal, and her boss snaps back, “Rise above it? That’s not our job, Nell. Our job is to create it.”
There are plenty of opinions closer to home, too. Each chapter opens with an email from a Brooklyn parenting network called The Village, which sends perky little reminders to hire a lactation consultant, walk off your baby weight, and start having sex with your partner again. The protagonists’ mothers tell them what to do: Baptize your baby! Go back to work! The May Mothers compete overtly with each other, exchanging homeopathic tips and displays of vulnerability like currency. Even Nell’s piggish boss has ideas about how a mother should be: he makes her return early from maternity leave, then shames her for gaining weight and missing her child.
It’s not news that when women become mothers, a whole new world of judgment snaps open. On a recent post on the fashion blog Man Repeller, the site’s founder, Leandra Medine, writes that after the recent birth of her twins, “I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of negative comments that populate my pictures. ‘Put your phone down and be with your babies,’ they will say.” You don’t need to look far — or try to look at all — to hear and read about experiences like this.
Of course, the idea of motherhood is always waiting for me. I’m 26, straight, Jewish. Every person in my life expects me to have children; I expect it of myself. And I want to, which is different, and less explored. The Perfect Mother doesn’t explore it at all. This is fundamentally a novel of expectations. In its characters’ world, wanting children — having always wanted children — is assumed. Colette, the only May Mother who didn’t get pregnant on purpose, admits to Winnie, “I called the whole thing a mistake for months. I’m excited now, but it’s been a process. I was not ready for her.” As she says this, she thinks of “the other women [in the group], who all seemed as if they’d spent their whole lives just waiting to become moms.”
This is true of the kidnapper, too. She’s a woman driven insane by expectations — her own and everyone else’s. She’s so desperate to be a perfect mother that she ends up possessed by perfection. She hallucinates, dissociates, commits terrible crimes in its service. And for a long time, no one can tell. Her friends find her performance of motherhood intimidating, and to the rest of the world, she’s just another Brooklyn mom with her stroller, going to baby yoga, popping probiotics, doing it right.
Horror stories rely on this dynamic. There has to be a character who’s haunted, or possessed, or stalked by some evil force, and the world around that person has to be unaware. The whole genre would be ruined if everybody believed in demons and ghosts. If Jack and Wendy in The Shining trusted their son’s premonitions, they wouldn’t stay a single night in the Overlook Hotel. In Jac Jemc’s recent novel The Grip of It, a couple moves into a haunted house, then lets their marriage dissolve rather than acknowledge the haunting. Carmen Maria Machado’s gorgeous “Horror Story” has the same premise, but in her version, the couple stays — the most relatable reason — because “the landlord had rented us a haunted house for above market rent and we didn’t have the money to move.”
In the Biblical story of Legion, which I’ve always considered the original horror story, Jesus encounters a man who’s possessed by a violent legion of demons, or else by a violent demon named Legion. He drives the demon(s) from the man into a herd of pigs, which immediately runs off a cliff. Afterward, the people in the town where the man lives aren’t grateful. They “plead with Jesus to leave their region.” He’s just saved them from a threat both spiritual and physical, and they can’t stand to face him — or face what he saw.
The demons in The Perfect Mother are not literal. But a demon is always a metaphor — those suicidal pigs in the Gospel of Mark aren’t important as pigs. The ghosts in the Overlook Hotel matter less than Jack Nicholson chasing his wife with an ax. It’s enough for the woman who kidnaps Midas to be driven by the pernicious ideal of perfection, something that came from outside her but to which she gave a home.
The Perfect Mother is a novel about internalized sexism, specifically as it relates to motherhood. And I do mean motherhood, not just privileged, gentrified Brooklyn motherhood, though I wish that weren’t the book’s context. The Perfect Mother could have been set nearly anywhere else in the United States, and should have been. Still, I hope its message will resonate as far past Park Slope as Molloy clearly intends it to. She seamlessly integrates commentary on the wage gap, on unpaid maternity leave, on male abuse of power in the workplace. Each protagonist has a demon of her own to fight, and with it, a new angle on the fundamental question of how a woman can reject the world’s beliefs about who she should be.
My favorite version of this is Colette, a ghostwriter married to a rising literary star. When the novel starts, she’s unhappily behind on a project her husband, Charlie, won’t take seriously. A few years ago, she ghostwrote a memoir for a charismatic young teacher who is now mayor, and he wants a follow-up. It’s going to be targeted at book clubs and at the “middle-aged women standing in line [at the mayor’s favorite diner], hoping to spot him at a table in the back,” and of course, it’s going to be a best seller. Charlie, though, couldn’t care less. Colette mentions that her deadline is a month closer than his, and he responds, “I know, baby. But you know what’s riding on mine.” To me, that would be grounds for a shrieking fight, but Colette just nods and agrees. Skip forward 100 pages, and she’s selling a novel to Charlie’s publisher.
I’m not going to give away everyone’s story line. Suffice it to say there’s a good Monica Lewinsky parallel, some enjoyable commentary on celebrity, and a few stories of heartbreaking sexual exploitation. There’s an underdeveloped but crucial arc for Alma, the nanny who was there when Midas vanished, whose immigration status and ability to raise her own child are threatened by the media frenzy around the case. And there’s Francie, who only needs to learn to speak up for herself. When the novel begins, she doesn’t even know that could be her goal. By the end, she’s the hero.
Francie shouldn’t need Midas’s disappearance to teach her how to speak up. Colette shouldn’t need it to understand the scope of her ambitions, nor Nell to argue with her sexist boss. This, I suspect, is Aimee Molloy’s agenda. She uses the drama of a kidnapping plot to shake readers awake. Her real goal is to show us the demons of motherhood in broad daylight, to make us admit the house is haunted. In Machado’s “Horror Story,” she’d be the psychic who comes over and opens the dryer, “which caused her to snap into the air like she was hanging from an invisible crucifix and recite something in a language we didn’t recognize, but which sounded unfathomably ancient.” After that, you can’t pretend there’s nothing going on.
I promised I’d return to the claim that The Perfect Mother is for women. I meant that. What I did not mean was that this is a novel for only women to read. It’s a novel written to champion women. It’s a powerful reminder that the consequences of telling a person who she is can be deadly. The Perfect Mother is set to be one of the year’s biggest crime novels, as well as a film starring Kerry Washington. I hope it keeps a whole nation of advice-givers awake all night.