cover image The Book of Mothers: How Literature Can Help Us Reinvent Modern Motherhood

The Book of Mothers: How Literature Can Help Us Reinvent Modern Motherhood

Carrie Mullins. St. Martin’s, $29 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-28506-5

This perceptive debut study from Mullins explores what the novels of Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, and others reveal about social attitudes toward motherhood. Likening the stars of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise to Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet, Mullins argues that both are obsessed with ostentatious wealth and “believe a woman’s currency is her looks.” Mullins contends that while Jane Austen uses Mrs. Bennet as a foil to her daughter Elizabeth’s more progressive “version of womanhood,” characterized by valuing one’s “intellect and happiness,” the Real Housewives shows leave their stars’ superficiality unexamined. Nella Larsen portrays motherhood as an unending bout of anxiety in her 1929 novel, Passing, Mullins writes, faulting Larsen for insinuating that marriage, while necessary for a woman to achieve financial security, makes wives sexually undesirable by turning them into, in the case of protagonist Irene, “overbearing, unattractive worrier[s].” Elsewhere, Mullins opines on how the unrelenting busyness of Mrs. Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series conflates constant activity with good mothering, and how Offred’s objectification by a repressive society in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes how antiabortion policies reduce women to their reproductive capacity. Mullins draws unexpected connections and manages the difficult task of finding fresh perspectives on much studied works of literature. The result is a discerning feminist examination of the Western canon. Agent: Laura Mazer, Wendy Sherman Assoc. (May)

Correction: An earlier version of this review conflated the author with a novelist of the same name.