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.

STRANGE LOVE’s story sequence explores the switchback trail to love after divorce with insight and empathy

Strange Love

Strange Love: Stories

By Lisa Lenzo

Wayne State University Press: May 1, 2014

$18.99, 227 pages

Lisa Lenzo’s second story collection, Strange Love, is an intimate look at protagonist Annie Zito’s open-hearted attempts to find love after divorce. The nine stories taken cumulatively add up to a novel that captures several stages in her single motherhood, ranging from age 31 — two years post-divorce and with an 8-year-old daughter, Marly – to her mid-40s, when Marly is out on her own, facing her own personal struggles.

Annie is an intelligent, earnest, and pleasantly quirky character and narrator. Her efforts to repair her broken heart and find love again run the gamut from awkward and needy to reserved and wary. The characters of the men she becomes involved with are finely drawn depictions of the various forms of the modern male malaise. These are flawed and very human people,  and Annie’s interactions with them remind us how finding a truly compatible life partner can seem like a miracle.

Despite Annie’s best intentions, complications always seem to arise. In the face of disappointment and frustration, she tries valiantly to remain flexible, sympathetic, and optimistic. But some relationships are not meant to be, and she eventually accepts this fact with bittersweet resignation. Yet, she returns in the next story, or perhaps the one after that, to try again – as one does.

If there is one thing we are loath to give up on, it is the search for love, intimacy, and companionship. We lick our wounds, retreat to our single lives of friends, family, work, and other interests, and live to fight the battle for love another day.

Although this might sound depressing, Annie’s innate goodness and slight eccentricity makes her someone with whom you enjoy spending time and for whom you wish only good things. There is reason for optimism on the reader’s part.

We also have the pleasure of watching the Marly grow up. The conversations between Annie and Marly will make you feel that Lenzo has been eavesdropping on your home life. Marly doesn’t hesitate to express her opinions of Annie’s various suitors or to tell Annie what she can and cannot do around Marly’s friends. After Marly runs through a long list of behaviors Annie must avoid, Annie responds, “You’re not letting me do anything!” To which Marly replies, “You can be quiet, polite, and not yourself.” Ouch. I think I know this kid. And I’ll bet you do, too. In time, Marly encounters her own romantic travails, including an abusive boyfriend, Mitch, who keeps both Marly and Annie on edge in a few stories.

While each story has an engaging plot line with a problem to be solved or conflict to be resolved, what stands out is the distinctive narrative voice Lenzo has created for Annie. It is so personal, so conversational and frank that reading Strange Love feels as if you are sitting down for a heart-to-heart talk with your best friend. In fact, these nine stories are so realistic and believable, so spot-on, that I often felt that I was reading a memoir.

Lenzo also makes particularly effective use of the rarely seen southwest Michigan setting, creating a palpable sense of place that acts as another main character. Annie lives in Saugatuck, a tiny art colony and liberal enclave on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Several characters live in Grand Rapids, and the narrative includes occasional trips into or discussions of Detroit, settings we rarely encounter in modern fiction (although, oddly enough, Emily St. John Mandel’s recent post-apocalyptic epidemic novel, Station Eleven, takes place in the same area).

Lenzo’s first collection, Within the Lighted City (1997) was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by University of Iowa Press. One of the stories in Strange Love, “Strays,” which details Marly’s penchant for trying to save strays of both the four-legged and two-legged variety, won the 2013 Georgetown Review short story contest. It is one of the highlights of this collection.

Still, Lenzo has been flying below the radar of most readers, and that needs to change. Strange Love will convince you that she is deserving of far greater recognition and acclaim.