review: two novels that explore mother/daughter relationships

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Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Bloomsbury| July 2016| 224 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-1-62040-669-4

RATING: ****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Bloomsbury.

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The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood. W.W. Norton| August 2016| 241 pages | $25.95| ISBN: 978-0-393-24165-5

RATING: ****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

–review by Amy Steele

Both Hot Milk [long-listed for the Man Booker Prize] and The Book That Matters Most center on mother-daughter relationships. Both novels feature two mothers seeking answers and two wayward twenty-something daughters. Both novels explore both the connection between mothers and daughters as well as a daughter’s efforts to forge her own path in the world. Both novels explore setting and sense of place. Both novels burgeon with vivid characterizations and stories. The Book that Matters Most sparkles in its focus on reading, the power of books and those that love books and reading.

Hot Milk takes place in southern Spain where Sofia, a budding anthropologist, takes her ailing mother, Rose, to meet with a world-renowned yet unusual specialist in somewhat of a last attempt to reduce her mother’s pain. The Book That Matters Most traverses between New England and Paris. In Rhode Island, Ava joins a book club to meet new friends when her husband abandons her after decades of marriage.  Points to Ann Hood for gathering an eclectic group of readers to this library book club. She expounds on quite a few of the members as they relate to Ava’s journey and each month’s book selection–particularly her friend Cate—librarian and book club leader. While Ava’s acclimating to the new group and becoming engulfed in novels, her daughter Maggie—who had been studying abroad in Italy– goes missing in Paris.

Both Sofia and Maggie enjoy themselves as any women [particularly young ones] should, exploring and pushing one’s comfort levels—Sofia takes two lovers in Spain, a young local man she meets on the beach and another vacationer named Ingrid. Author Deborah Levy writes: “We have become lovers. Ingrid is naked. Her blond hair is heavy. There is a fine mist of sweat on her face. Two gold bracelets circle her wrists. The blades of the fan spin and rattle above our heads.” Maggie jumps from guy to guy until she meets an older French man who offers her his lovely apartment to crash in as well as an unlimited drug supply—“He brought her such good-quality drugs that sometimes they knocked her flat for days. When that happened, everything turned soft and gauzy.” It’s the drugs that cause most problems for Maggie as she overdoses and hangs by a thread until her next fix.

Ava remains rather serious in her endeavors. Her younger sister died in a tragic accident and her mother committed suicide a year afterwards. Author Ann Hood writes: “But Ava, with her unruly brown hair and blue spectacles, her tendency toward pouting and sarcasm and a generally sour personality, only pleased her mother by being a voracious reader.” In the book club, each member chooses a book that holds special meaning. Ava chooses a book called From Clare to Here. It turns out this book proves difficult to find as its out-of-print. Ava also promised to invite the author to that month’s book club. As she searches for the novel and her daughter the two mysteries become entangled in quite an intriguing and formidable manner.

During her mother’s treatment, Sofia becomes increasingly detached—“Rose’s lips are moving and Julietta is listening but I’m not listening. I have been asked to be present but I am not present. I’m watching Bowie concert from 1972 on YouTube and it is buffering while he sings.” She’s soon needed less often and finds herself contemplating several issues, as one might do. Sofia learns she thrives outside her stifled London environment. She’s able to be the free spirited soul that enables her to embrace her unique qualities.

As an outsider with a smudgy circuitous route rather than a neat, linear route, I could relate to both Sofia and Maggie– not the drug usage but the not knowing exactly what to do with one’s life professionally or personally. Both young women are resilient and determined.  These characters bounce off the pages. Following their journeys through lovely writing proves fulfilling and resonant.

 

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