The Over Earnest, Over Protective Mother in Modern Fiction

This year I learned that there is something about over earnest, over protective mothers in fiction that just doesn’t work for me. A while back Jen from Devourer of Books once wrote an excellent post about how a royal mother choosing to nurse her own babies in Historical Fiction is like a key word for “good” or even “true” mother. After a couple of the books I’ve read this year, I’m wondering if the same might be true of the ever present, always on alert mothers in modern fiction. Had I not read two such novels in relatively quick succession I may not have made a connection.

These mothers may have their reasons for being above and beyond the level of concerned and caring of the typical mother. I find that I really don’t care. These women grate on my nerves just as much as they must on their spouses and their children. There almost always is that “fateful moment” when these women finally let down their guard and there darkest fears almost surely unfold thereafter. This obsession with keeping their children safe tends to be a shield from their past. Just because a woman becomes a mother doesn’t mean that her life stops. It changes, but if you cover up your past with your children that’s a burden on the children and sets the stage for miserable, lonely senior years. When I come across these characters in fiction I get so impatient. Their other faults or shortcomings are amplified in my mind. This isn’t an issue when they are supporting characters, but when they are front in center it almost always spells disaster for me as a reader. Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel and A Simple Thing by Kathleen McCleary will serve as my cases in point.

Sea Creatures by Susanna DanielCover of Sea Creatures
HarperCollins ~ July 30, 2013 ~ 311 pages
Harper Audio ~ Karen White ~ 10 hours 50 minutes

Sea Creatures follows the story of Georgia. She married a man she met while at a medical facility dealing with sleep disorders. Her insomnia was bothersome, but her husband’s parasomnia was frightening and even dangerous. It has even curtailed his career. They have a son who can hear perfectly well, but refuses to speak. Georgia communicates with him almost entirely with sign language. This is a continual source of friction in her marriage, but Georgia doesn’t see herself as coddling her son. She doesn’t encourage him to rediscover his voice and must act as translator in any interaction that he has with other people, something that she tends to limit. This is all in an effort to make him feel safe. While she’s busy focused on James, I found myself wanting to shake her and ask her why she married this man with such heavy baggage. I’m not suggesting that those with severe medical issues should not be loved, but as each new revelation about the history of her husband, their marriage, and the battle over becoming parents arose I couldn’t help myself from screaming at her, “What were you thinking?” To me, the biggest disservice Georgia did to her son was not her climactic maternal failure but selfishly raising him in such an unstable environment in the first place.

There were some beautiful aspects to this story. I loved the look into life lived on stilt houses in Florida, the relationships James developed with others, and I found some of the resolution at the end satisfying. That being said, I may not have finished the book at all were it not for the expert narration of Karen White. The audiobook was well produced and White’s steady command of the story kept calling me back from the edge when my blood pressure started to rise.

A Simple Thing by Kathleen McClearyCover of A Simple Thing
William Morrow ~ July 24, 2013 ~ 304 pages

A Simple Thing was the November selection for my IRL book club. I was looking forward to this book because I enjoyed the author’s first novel, House and Home. I brought it with me on my trip to Disney, thinking that it would make for perfect vacation time reading. All said, it took me over two weeks to read this relatively short book. I’m afraid to admit that the only thing that kept me from DNFing it was the fact that I’d already DNFd another read for the book club earlier this fall (Wish You Well by David Baldacci) and the fact that I suggested reading it in the first place. This novel featured another mother, Susannah, who is most serious about the welfare of her children. When her son gets bullied at school and her older daughter is hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, she feels the need to take action. She moves her children from their suburban Northern Virginia home to an island off of Seattle that she’s never before seen. Her husband is left back home in Virginia to presumably work to pay for their mortgage and island rental. While I can sympathize with being upset about her daughter’s behavior, the bad choices she made did not for a moment merit her mother’s reaction. The story lost me right there in the beginning when she ran away to a place she’s never seen. Yes, it certainly separated her kids from their troubles, but it did absolutely nothing to address them. All it did was break up the family and isolate them from each other. She most definitely was scared of life and this was a supremely selfish act. She felt she gained some control over the situation and was more able to keep an eye on them. I did not see this as something a good or strong mother would do. That her children were able to make the most of the situation over time is a testament to the resiliency of children, not her parenting skills.

There were bright spots in this story. This novel is told from two perspectives, Susannah’s and Betty’s. Betty moved to the island many years before and has a story of her own. I loved the relationship she had with the island, her family, and Barefoot. In fact, Barefoot was my favorite character in the entire book. He was abrupt, but his outlook on life was pure refreshment. Had this book been about Betty and Barefoot my review would have been entirely different. As it was, I was relieved when I finished the last page.

A reader’s life is too precious to squander on books that simply do not appeal in any way. From here on out I’ll be steering clear of books featuring those oh-so-earnest mothers. Bless their hearts, but irritate the fire out of me. If you know of other books like these that I should avoid, I’ll be forever grateful for your warning.

Are there any topics or subjects that have a similar effect on you? What are they? How do they make you feel?


  • At 2013.12.05 10:43, bermudaonion (Kathy) said:

    The sad thing is I’ve known some mothers like that. Maybe not to the degree portrayed in those books but still.

    One thing that really bugs me in books is when 2 adults act like they hate each other but really love each other and then the other person loves them too. It’s like junior high all over again.

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    • At 2013.12.05 13:17, Kailana said:

      Oh, I hate that, too, Kathy! I stopped reading teen fiction mostly because of it, and now it seems to be spreading into adult books because they apparently think it is ‘popular’. The minute it starts in a book lately I lose interest…

    • At 2013.12.05 13:15, Ellison Weist said:

      I cannot tell you how happy I was to read this post. Like you, I’m fed up with this type of book especially when the mother wears blinders the size of Toledo. Or we’re supposed to believe that a rational, intelligent woman can’t see the writing on the wall, over-reacts and/or won’t believe her child needs help after he’s tortured 12 neighborhood pets.

      But my main concern is how often this type of novel feeds into the trend to over-protect children to the point of making them prisoners in their own homes. The idea that we live in a much more dangerous world – i.e., a pervert around each and every corner – is erroneous but, sadly, most parents believe it. Data shows there are fewer stranger abductions now than in the 1970s. Talk to social workers and, as I did, several Family Court judges, and you’ll find that children are much more likely to be preyed upon by family members, trusted friends/neighbors/coaches than strangers. It’s just that when the latter does occur, it’s headline news.

      So my pet peeve is jacket copy featuring a combination of the mothers you’ve discussed and a horrific event that threatens or harms her child. I’m not going to name titles but I avoid these like the plague. I feel they manipulate the feelings of young mothers and feed into our worst nightmares. Plus they’re usually poorly written and not worth my time.

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      • At 2013.12.07 10:14, Sheila (Book JOurney) said:

        Awesome post! Books lose me too when they take an unrealistic turn… I cant get over the fact that while fiction reading, it still needs to make sense. You have to be a pretty darn good book to make me overlook such things as “how did they pay for that, what about her husband, who does that????”

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