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What My Mother Gave Me: book review

what my mother gave me

What My Mother Gave Me edited by Elizabeth Benedict. Publisher: Algonquin (2013). Essays. Trade paperback. 289 pages. ISBN 978-1-61620-135-7.

Mother-daughter relationships wrought with anguish, endearment, benevolence, resentment. In this essay collection, women write about their mothers with honesty, humor, empathy and depth. What did these gifts mean? What lessons did these women learn from their mothers? How have these gifts influenced them? Contributors include best-selling novelists, a U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winners, NPR commentators and winners of the National Book Award. Maud Newton got books. Jean Hanff Korelitz’s mom gave her Sylvia Plath. Mary Gordon received a Circle Line boat trip. Mameve Medwed’s mother gave her a door. Joyce Carol Oates’s mother gave her a quilt. Lisa See’s mother gave her writing. Elizabeth Benedict’s mother gave her a scarf. It works either to dip into here and there or read from cover to cover.

Maud Newton: “I was expected to be a prodigy of some kind. My parents had married, my mother told me, not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.”

Jean Hanff Korelitz: “I was adolescent (still), poetic, moody, feminist, and – it went without saying—misunderstood. It was only a matter of time before I fell beneath the sway of a certain strain of lyrical intensity, a white-hot declaration of brilliance and femaleness and power. The verse, in other words, was already on the wall.”

Mary Gordon: “And so, I have come to understand why she never got me presents, and this failure was the objective correlative of her inability to give me any useful guidance on a good way of being a woman. This, too, has been a cause for generous lashings of self-pity when I drink the hemlock of deprivation and regret for what I have not had, or what I had to earn or win myself, through luck or labor.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “After my mother died in 2003, for a long time I would imagine her with me, in my study in particular, though imagine is perhaps a weak word to describe how keenly I felt Mom’s presence. In writing the novel Missing Mom, I tried to evoke Carolina Oates—well, I’m sure that I did evoke her, not fully or completely but in part. Mom is so much a part of myself, writing the novel was the antithesis of an exorcism, a portrait in words of a remarkable person whom everyone loved.”

Lisa See: “She’d shown me that to be a woman, a mother, or a writer I must sacrifice, show courage, and be loyal. I must look for those authentic emotions. I can never give up or bow to people who tell me that I can’t write because I’m a woman, that no one cares what I have to say, or that I’m worthless.”

Elizabeth Benedict: “I kept my distance from both of them. I moved to California and changed my name, had a ton of therapy, moved back East, wrote several novels that were—beneath a kind of surface of glitter and glibness—fundamentally about women who had a hard time expressing their deepest feelings.”

RATING: ***1/2

I received this book for review from Algonquin Books.

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