cover image Mother Land

Mother Land

Paul Theroux. HMH/Dolan, $28 (560p) ISBN 978-0-618-83932-2

The diminutive matriarch of a large Catholic family is the powerful center of Theroux’s engaging novel. Noted for including thinly disguised family and friends among the characters in his stories, Theroux creates an unsparing portrait of Mother, who has fostered malicious backbiting and animosity among her seven children. (The only “perfect” child was Angela, dead at birth, from whom Mother receives guidance in daily conversations.) The narrator, J.P. or Jay, is, like the author, the twice-divorced father of two sons with another son given up for adoption. A successful but financially struggling writer, he has tried to distance himself from his siblings, but the death of his elderly father has brought him back to what he calls Mother Land, the tyrannized clan on Cape Cod. Theroux’s gifts for narrative drive and using darkly humorous descriptive details propel the plot through decades of the fractious lives of middle-aged siblings ceaselessly engaged in insults and rivalry to gain their mother’s favor. Mother’s 90th birthday party is the hilarious essence of family dysfunction. One of the novel’s big surprises is an audacious ploy that revives an old scandal and mixes reality with fiction. The book includes text from a blistering review of a novel by the fictional Jay—which is in fact taken from a real-life review of Paul’s novel My Other Life by his brother Alexander Theroux. The effect is disorienting, if clever. As the pages turn, though, Theroux seems determined to describe every event during years of family discord, with the result that the novel is bloated with dramatic incident, and while each event provides a new spin on Mother’s outrageous manipulation, readers may want Jay to grow up and leave his toxic family long before the end. (May)