MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS a suspenseful study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship

Mothers and Other Strangers

By Gina Sorell

Prospect Park Books: May 2, 2017

$16, 314 pages

It’s not unusual for adult children to become estranged from their parents. Sometimes it’s a psychological and emotional necessity, other times it’s simply the result of unfortunate events or misunderstandings. As the old saying goes, we don’t get to choose our family, and there’s no guarantee we will like each other, particularly as time goes on and we build separate lives.

Gina Sorell’s debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, explores this fraught territory with compelling results. It is a complex family drama, a dual (and dueling) character study, and a suspenseful mystery all in 300 pages.

Elsie is 39 and an ex-dancer living in Los Angeles when she learns that her mother, Rachel, has passed away at home in Toronto. More than just physical distance separates them; they have not spoken in two decades. Rachel, it turns out, is what we used to call “a real piece of work.” She is a mean-spirited narcissist concerned with how she appears to others and following her own spiritual muse around the world. She is not interested in being a mother, even though her husband passed away when Elsie was an infant. So, Elsie grows up seeking her mother’s attention and approval, but receiving little of either, and ultimately doing her best to raise herself.

When Elsie returns to Toronto to sort through her mother’s belongings and tie up the loose ends of her life, she finds that little has changed in her apartment in a luxury highrise building, and that her mother did not appear to be the wealthy woman her lifestyle had always suggested she was. What happened in the last 20 years? Did it involve her devoted membership in The Seekers, a “new-agey” spiritual group based in Paris, and her obsession with their charismatic founder, Philippe? When someone breaks into the apartment and turns it upside down looking for something – although it’s clear to Elsie there is nothing of value in the apartment of this elderly woman – she begins to suspect that her mother had led a different life than she’d thought.

Elsie’s return to Toronto forces her to examine a past she’d long quarantined, and the structure of Mothers and Other Strangers moves back and forth in time to reveal Elsie’s life, increasing the mystery and tension as the plot progresses. How did a child born in South Africa end up being raised in Canada? What really happened to her father? Why does she have nightmares involving a house fire and a black caretaker? Why did her mother view the Seekers as her family instead of Elsie? Why couldn’t her mother love her?

As Elsie peels back the layers of her mother’s life, she confronts her own traumas and the resulting demons that continue to follow her. Little is as it seemed to either the younger Elsie or the divorced adult Elsie. Mothers and Other Strangers could have been written as a straight suspense novel or as a close study of an exceptionally difficult mother-daughter relationship. Instead, Sorrel has combined the two to generally good effect, although it occasionally makes for odd pacing. For example, just as the enigma of Rachel’s life becomes particularly intriguing, we are taken back to Elsie’s teenage years as a gifted dancer who steadily establishes her independence from a mother who is absent physically and emotionally. Both aspects of the story are compelling, but one makes you turn the pages faster, and readers can become greedy about a complex, thought-provoking plot. Wait! What happens next?! Why? How? No!

Suffice to say (no spoilers here!), Elsie moves back through her mother’s life, to Paris and on to South Africa, to discover her many secrets, including the one that had proven the most impervious of all: Why was Rachel the person — and mother — she was? By the end, she has changed from a mystifying and heartbreaking stranger into a flawed young woman fleeing her own tragedies and attempting to build a life for her daughter and herself. Elsie learns, as do we all, that who we are is a direct result of our parents’ character and choices, and that they are, like us, deeply imperfect people.

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Lisa Gornick: “I am a great admirer of old-fashioned sprawling novels.”

lisa_gornick   Tinderbox

 

Lisa Gornick’s Tinderbox is a powerfully written exploration of one family in a state of crisis. Her training and experience as a psychologist and psychoanalyst shows through in the richness and realism of her characterizations. The novel also benefits from a compelling multi-level plot and an intriguing structure. You can read my recent review here.

Can you tell me about your background as a writer (e.g., when you started, your education, writing experiences, etc.)?  What led you from psychology and psychoanalysis to fiction?

I actually started as a writer, and then became a psychologist and ultimately a psychoanalyst.  Like most writers, I was first a passionate reader — one of those nose-in-a-book kids.  By high school, I’d begun my own scribbling: poems that in my twenties morphed into stories.  Becoming a therapist and ultimately a psychoanalyst was an organic outgrowth of my love of language and character-driven novels.  Over the years, I’ve written about Freud’s relationship with creative writing and creative writers and the links between “novelizing” and “analyzing,” including the connection between free association and the literary imagination, pulse points in fiction and a treatment, and the centrality in both endeavors of the story behind the story.

I would imagine that this background would come in handy in creating complex, realistic characters. The characters in Tinderbox all had some kind of quirk or burden, all of which seemed realistic to me. People are full of contradictions, complexities, character “flaws” and secrets. Do you get a lot of ideas from your therapy practice?

I have a rigid rule about writing about patients: verboten in any form, clinical or fiction.  That said, my understanding of how we become who we are and how stories unfold is strongly informed by my psychoanalytic training and experience.

What made you feel that you had to tell this story? What were your goals/artistic objectives in writing Tinderbox, beyond telling a compelling story?

Tinderbox began with a true story that got under my skin about a nanny who fell apart when she came to work for a family whose loving attention to their child stimulated her own buried longings for a mothering she’d never had.  The story (whose details I entirely altered) dovetailed with an interest in one of the occupational hazards for therapists, who are often a magnet for revelations by people encountered outside our offices — a situation in which everyday kindly intentions of being a sympathetic ear need to be tempered with prudence about what is best directed into a treatment.  While these ideas were percolating, I spent some weeks in Montana and Idaho when terrifying wildfires were blazing, a contributing factor, I learned, having been the Smokey Bear policy of preventing all fires, which can lead to overgrown underbrush that sets the stage for out-of-control conflagrations.  These situations came together in what is a central theme of the novel: a tragedy of good intentions.

What was the greatest challenge in writing Tinderbox?

The greatest challenge of writing Tinderbox was figuring out the structure.  I am a great admirer of old-fashioned sprawling novels that move seamlessly in and out of various characters’ heads with a relaxed capaciousness, and I didn’t want to be constricted by what seems to me to be the now overused schema of alternating points of view by chapter.  Rather, I wanted the story to be preeminent: to narrate each scene from the point of view that makes most sense for both that moment and the larger unfolding of the various elements of the novel.  The image I had was that the narrative is like a baton passed from character to character — though I did limit the number of characters who have access to the baton, in part to enhance the mystery and suspense.

The second major structural challenge concerned how to handle time.  I’ve heard it said that our personal narratives begin with the memories of our grandparents, and indeed the story told in Tinderbox stretches back several generations.   At the same time, I wanted the novel to have a tight front story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The aim was to have the scenes in the past have the same vibrancy as the scenes in the present (i.e. to avoid the feeling of the flashback) while simultaneously maintaining a strong driving sense of the contemporary story moving forward.  Novels, like nearly every important undertaking, contain many opposing forces, and insight, hard work, and a good dose of luck are required to achieve a balance.

Readers might wonder whether you have actually been to the exotic locales in the book like Peru and Morocco. From your detailed descriptions and the strong sense of place you create in the Morocco scenes, it certainly seems like you’ve been there.

I have spent time in both Morocco and Peru.  I couldn’t have written the scenes that take place in Essaouira, the wind-swept city where Rachida grew up, without having been there first.  As for Iquitos, the nanny Eva’s home, I didn’t visit there until I’d written several drafts of the novel.  Thinking about it now, that was for the best.  Eva is the one major character whose point of view is never shared, so her home is understood only through others’ fantasies about it — most particularly, through Adam, the father of the child Eva cares for, who has been obsessed with the place since first seeing Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, which is set there.

How did you become interested in Sephardic Jews and their migrations? Have you found that readers are particularly intrigued by the subplot about Moroccan Jews in Peru? Most people have no idea there were (and are) Jews in Latin America (and that many of them were and are Crypto-Jews who hide their identity in a very Catholic part of the world), and they usually aren’t aware of their presence historically in countries like Morocco, Iraq, and Iran.

Learning about the Jews of Iquitos was an uncanny discovery for me.  When I first began the novel, I’d already decided that Eva was from Iquitos — which, like Adam, I knew about from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, about the parallel process between Herzog’s epic making of the movie and his character Fitzcarraldo’s maniacal project.  I’d already conceived of Adam’s wife, Rachida, a Moroccan Jewish doctor from Essaouira, whose now decimated but once powerful Jewish community I knew about from my travels.  Then, one day when I was reading about Iquitos, I stumbled upon a reference to a small Jewish community in Iquitos.  That seemed strange: a Jewish community in a landlocked city, accessible only by boat or air, in the middle of the jungle?  My curiosity piqued, I began to research further and  — my heart nearly stopped.  The Jews of Iquitos, I learned, were the descendants of Moroccan Jewish rubber traders, many mere boys of 19 or 20, who’d come to the perilous Amazon during the rubber boom of the late 1800’s and then peremptorily departed when the  boom went bust in the early 1900’s, leaving behind their common-law Indian wives and offspring.   In other words, there might be an historical link between my characters Rachida and Eva, whom I’d independently imagined and never thought of having a connection beyond employer and employee.

Adam’s obsession with pornography ties in with the problems caused in some marriages by the limitless supply of porn on the Internet. Did you (do you) see a lot of this porn obsession in your work as a therapist? What does it signify generally and for Adam specifically?

You don’t have to be a therapist to know that porn is ubiquitous in our culture.  It’s virtually impossible for preteens not to stumble upon it, and it has a huge impact on men’s lives.  For Adam, there is a very specific meaning to the images he seeks — and they are key to understanding his psychic life, but his use of porn is also terribly destructive for him and for his family.  Because he’s a screenwriter and movies are sacred to him, he’s horrified at the idea of contaminating his work with porn viewed on a screen, so unlike most contemporary porn addicts, he looks only at porn in magazines.

What are your favorite books or the ones that most influenced you?

For Tinderbox, there was a specific set of novels that I studied — literally outlined to understand how they were put together.  This group of novels included Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, Alice McDermott’s After This, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.  In everything I write, I have been deeply influenced by Alice Munro: the economical way she conveys an entire life within a tight narrative; her original sentences, devoid of writerly showiness, that convey the way we think; her acceptance of the coexistence of pettiness and largesse in the human heart.

Several drafts into Tinderbox, I read for the first time Anna Karenina (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).  I was stunned by how contemporary the novel feels and how gripping it is despite its enormous cast of characters and sociological, philosophical and political ambitions.  The novel’s accessibility, it seems to me, is in part due to the structure of  bite-sized sections, each of which can easily be read in a single sitting, within longer parts.  Inspired by Tolstoy, I revamped Tinderbox, throwing out the chapters, and reorganizing it into four parts, each, a la Anna, with short numbered sections.

What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it in bookstores?

I have a collection of linked short stories — a novel in fragments — titled Louisa Meets Bear that centers on a star-crossed affair between Louisa, the artistic and sexually-adventurous daughter of a San Francisco geneticist, and Bear, the passionate but explosive son of a Cincinnati plumber, upcoming, also with Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in June of 2015.  And, I’m finishing up a new novel, tentatively titled The Peacock Feast, that opens in 1916 with Louis C. Tiffany, the genius glass artist, torpedoing the breakwater in front of his phantasmagorical Oyster Bay mansion, with its daffodil columns and blue-tiled minaret, rather than allowing the town to reclaim what he viewed as his beach for public bathing.

 

TINDERBOX an absorbing family drama that benefits from author’s psychological insights

Tinderbox    lisa_gornick

Tinderbox

By Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books, Sept. 10, 2013

$26.00, 299 pages

Some books, like people, make a poor first impression. The cover art of Tinderbox lacks the gravitas of the book’s “mysterious stranger meets fragile family” premise. It features a photo of an open matchbook and a small plastic toy dinosaur on a white surface, surrounded by a pale pink border and topped by a light font. But, having heard good things about the book, the serious reader soldiers on, remembering the old saying about not judging a book by its cover.

The first section of the book doesn’t help matters; something about the exposition seems forced and heavy-handed. The characters, upper income Upper West Siders, seem cliched and not especially likable. The descriptions include too many labels and product names. It’s all just a little off-putting. But one doesn’t put a book down after only 25 pages. Have faith in the author and the story she has to tell; all will become clear.

Just as people who make a poor first impression can go on to become a close friend or even a spouse, so does Tinderbox slowly and steadily win over the reader. By page 50, most of your reservations will have been left behind, as the rising action pulls you in. By page 100, it has become a taut and absorbing story of a family laboring under manifold burdens and secrets. By page 200, it has utterly won you over with the quality of the writing, the probing insights into characters and conflicts, and — yes — the likability of the characters, of whom you have grown quite fond.

Lisa Gornick is a psychotherapist by training, and her background informs Tinderbox. The protagonist, Myra, is a middle-aged therapist working out of a ground floor office in her four-story home on West 95th Street. Her daughter Caro is the workaholic director of a preschool in East Harlem for underprivileged kids, with no love life to speak of. Myra has invited her son Adam, along with his wife, Rachida, and their young son, Omar, to live with her for the year while Rachida completes a respecialization fellowship to switch from dermatology to primary care. Adam is a feckless, phobic, and under-employed screenwriter of second-rate Westerns, obsessed with movies in the manner of an overgrown Film Studies major. Rachida is a driven Moroccan Jew who has married into a secular Jewish family. Myra’s ex-husband, Larry, is a cardiologist who has remarried and now lives in Tucson; their relationship is polite but distant.

Into this already fragile domestic drama comes Eva, a young girl from Peru who has been recommended to Myra by her cousin Ursula in Lima. She has had a difficult life, having lost her mother in a house fire when she was just a child. Interestingly, she is convinced that she is descended from a small group of Sephardic Jews living in the Amazon city of Iquitos, where Moroccan Jews had once settled to work in the rubber export trade. Myra, despite initial reservations, agrees to allow Eva to become the newly-expanded Mendelsohn family’s nanny. What follows is a textbook example of the expression “No good deed goes unpunished.” The law of unintended consequences plays itself out in such compelling fashion that readers will find themselves racing to the last page.

As is usually the case, the mysterious stranger is a far more complex person than is first believed. At first, all proceeds smoothly. But Eva has night terrors and sucks her thumb when she sleeps. She begins to reveal her horrific life story to Myra, who is torn between her desire to help and the obligations of psychotherapeutic ethics. At the same time, we learn that Adam and Rachida’s marriage is troubled and that each is guarding a potentially explosive secret. Then Eva discovers something about one of the family members that will cause this tinderbox to catch fire, both literally and figuratively. As Gornick so powerfully puts it, Eva is the match that lights the kindling of Myra’s good intentions.

Gornick has written a smart, adult domestic drama that explores the varied family members’ lives and the many fraught relationships that can exist within one family. These are characters with realistic foibles who are trying their best to manage the many roles they each play and the expectations placed upon them by others. While the resolution may be too neatly constructed, it makes for an emotionally satisfying conclusion, for the reader has come to care deeply about these very human and all-too-familiar characters.