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.

Eavesdropping: Michelle Brafman on how Bertrand “Ray” Farkas taught her the power of listening

Kittner_20140916_4310This election season is bringing out the worst in all of us, myself included. I’ve laughed at photos of Trump’s face superimposed on a horse’s ass and gleefully pored over the precise words Melania stole from Michelle. I’ve scream-ranted about Trump’s xenophobia, fat-shaming, and misogyny and have diagnosed him with a slew of mental disorders I’ve pinched from the DSM-5. I’ve done this all in front of my children, undermining years of effort to teach them how to see the gray in the world and in people, something I value deeply as a mother, writer, and human being.

The incessant candidate bashing hurts my ears and my heart. I want the shouting and the hating to stop. I also want my mentor, the late Bertrand “Ray” Farkas, back.

I recently had dinner with Ray’s daughter, and we agreed that her father, an Emmy Award-winning television producer for NBC and numerous other programmers, would be having a field day with this election if he were alive to see it. Without question Ray would have dined out on the memes and jokes and feared the potential of a Trump presidency.

Ray also would have put aside his personal feelings to do what he did best. Listen. From very far away. Ray’s approach to television news was unique and often copied by other producers, sound technicians, and photojournalists. Here is how his bio described his work: “He believed in conversations — not interviews, eavesdropping — not intruding, no lights, and keeping the camera far away from his subjects. He was devoted to time, place and context — little things, not big things, that television can do better than any other medium. But seldom does.”

I picked Ray as my mentor when I was a television producer, but he taught me as much, if not more, about writing. He implored me to pay attention, always, and to listen to silences, where Grace Paley said “little truths growl.”

ray-farkas-photo-by-bob-burgess

Ray removed himself from the conversation in order to record people talking to one another. He did so by attaching wireless mics to his subjects, sitting them down at a diner booth or park bench, and setting up his camera yards away. He used long lenses and a foreground composition (his email address was Foreground@aol.com). These shots were not only visually interesting, but they gave the viewer the sense that he/she was eavesdropping on a private discussion.

Eavesdropping is a writer’s lifeblood and demands a different kind of listening, a subtle craning of the neck, a curiosity about a conversation that’s just out of our reach, a commitment to closing our mouths and opening our ears. This trait was Ray’s calling card as well. He never shoved a mic in someone’s face, ever, and not because he wasn’t aggressive in his desire to tell a story. Ray captured some of the most tender moments in U.S. history: the aftermath of 9/11, the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial, and numerous others.

In “Interviews 50 cents,” (a magazine series featured on ABC, PBS, and Slate V), Ray teamed up with former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick and traveled the country setting up interview stands.

Ray and Alex shared the belief that everyone has a story: a Key West man negotiating his life with AIDS, an ex-con musing about his future at the Indiana State Fair, and myriad participants who plunked down two quarters to unburden themselves. I learned how to listen for such stories, which led me to write my own imaginary ones, culminating in Bertrand Court, my book of linked narratives about the kind of characters who might have popped up at one of Ray’s interview stands.

If Ray were alive, one of the networks would have called him to produce a series on the election, maybe because one of his disciples, an idealistic, slightly offbeat, producer like myself would have made it happen. He collected us like stamps. He would have meandered over to a diner, ten or so miles and a whole universe away from Capitol Hill. He would have drummed up both a Trump and a Hillary supporter, not politicos, but mechanics, teachers, or insurance salesmen, people who are fed up enough to want change and passionate enough to think that one of these candidates will give it to them.

Ray would mic them, place a ketchup bottle in the foreground, and set up his camera outside the diner. The light would be fading, and they’d talk, forgetting that he was sitting outside with a headset, both blissed out by their expression of honesty and scared by the unbridled fear and anger that is guiding this race. And there would be no mics waved in anyone’s face.

Ray would thank these people and arrange another such pairing. And after a long exhilarating day of shooting, he would call it a night. The next day he would go through his footage and tweeze the most genuine and raw moments and mix them with the natural sounds of the cash register, the fryer, and a Springsteen anthem on the jukebox. He’d find an editor to piece all the elements together, exactly to his satisfaction, and the final product, shot through the haze of a pro-mist filter, would contain no shred of sentimentality.

Merely watching one of Ray’s pieces would remind us to put our mics down and listen with the rapt curiosity of an eavesdropper. We’d reenter the conversation with more civility. And we’d be much prouder of who we are, once the yelling finally stops.


Michelle Brafman is the author of the novels Washing the Dead (2015) and Bertrand Court (2016) (both published by Prospect Park Books). Her writing has appeared in Slate, Tablet, Lilith, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children.
Photo of Ray Farkas by Bob Burgess