I’ve read two books recently that started from much the same place: with a floundering stay-at-home mom.
The books made me realize that the bored housewife, though an oft-used trope, is rarely done well. Novelists and screenwriters use it cheaply, as a cliché.
But I’ve had dozens of conversations with floundering stay-at-home moms over coffee—my own friends, neighbors, acquaintances. Real people struggling with real things. Fiction doesn’t handle their situations very often, or very well, and that’s a shame. There’s so much to dig into there.
The two books I read started in the same place: with two young mothers, married with a couple of kids. Both agreed to move long distances for their husbands’ careers, leaving their friends, families, and careers behind. Both felt isolated; both felt like they were losing important parts of themselves.
That’s where the similarities end. The first novel is The Expats, a spy thriller by Chris Pavone. The wife chooses to quit her high-powered job (and that’s all I’ll say; no spoilers here) in order to accompany her husband to Luxembourg for his. She experienced her fair share of mother guilt over the years, which was just one reason she was happy to hang up her hat, but once she found herself firmly entrenched in the expat school-mum routine, she was lost, lonely, and bored.
Because she has time to kill, she begins to analyze her current life, and the lives of the handful of people she knows in Luxembourg, through the lens of her old profession. She’s shocked by what she sees. She can’t decide if there’s actually something there, or if she’s deluding herself, yearning for her old professional life.
The Expats seems far-fetched for a lot of people. (It’s a spy thriller. Aren’t they all?)
The second novel, Everyone is Beautiful, puts a much more relatable spin on unfulfilled stay-at-home motherhood.
I’ve said before that if I didn’t know better, I would think that Katherine Center is Brené Brown’s chosen pen name for the fiction she writes on the side to flesh out her work. (If you’ve never read Daring Greatly or The Gifts of Imperfection, go get yourself a copy right now. It doesn’t matter where you start; just pick one.)
In Everyone is Beautiful, Center visits a theme I encounter far more in my day-to-day conversations than in fiction: woman has kids, woman pours herself into kids, woman feels like she’s lost herself because her life feels like it’s all about the kids.
This particular wife has three young sons whom she loves fiercely, more extra pounds than she’d care to admit, and not a moment to spare for herself. (Or, unhappily for both, her husband.) In words that sound like a horrible cliché but are wholeheartedly spoken across Starbucks tables every day, she aches to feel like herself again—just for an hour or two. She makes a new friend and makes a plan. Of course nothing goes according to plan.
I gave Everyone is Beautiful a solid three stars: I liked it. But I was rather surprised to see the plethora of enthusiastic 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I’m surprised so many readers rated it so highly: I’d thought it a bit too breezy, too formulaic, and the ending much too tidy for a 5-star rating.
Center’s strength is putting meat on the bones of the concepts that women wrestle with every day. She has some profound and eloquent insights into motherhood, which I very much appreciated. And she does it through the lens of fiction, which lets women look at their own lives with a little less attachment and a lot more objectivity than they’re accustomed to.
She makes the bored housewife relatable, and likable, and even a bit heroic.
So I wonder: does Everyone is Beautiful have such high reviews because readers desperately want to engage with this issue?
I would love to hear your thoughts in comments, as always. And if you can think of any novels that do a good job of engaging with this issue, please share those as well.
Books mentioned in this post: