cover image Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence

Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence

Lynne Tillman. Soft Skull, $23 (160p) ISBN 978-1-59376-717-4

In this discerning if uneven work, novelist and critic Tillman (Men and Apparitions) reckons with the equivocations and guilt she weathered while caring for her ailing mother at the end of her life. Recalling the 11 years she and her sisters spent tending to their mother (referred to as “Mother” here) after she was diagnosed in 1994 with a rare condition that caused memory loss, Tillman suggests that “keeping her alive was done generously, but not selflessly, and also as a grueling obligation.” As she traces Mother’s decline, Tillman details her frustrations with a medical community unable to properly handle her mother’s unusual case, including an “arrogant neurologist” and a “lunatic” caregiver who’s later fired for being “utterly ineffective.” Though the intellectual rigor and analysis that mark Tillman’s criticism are evident, they often lend a dispassionate distance to her observations, even as intimate details are shared. Two recurring themes lend propulsive force to the book: Mother’s love for an abandoned cat, and a late-in-life declaration to her daughter that “if I had wanted to be, I would have been a better writer than you.” It’s this “unvarnished truth” that gives the work its emotional texture, underscoring the complicated binds that make up families. Despite being something of a mixed bag, Tillman’s frank insights on love and loss are cannily original. (Aug.)