My sister was always the one who talked about getting married, having babies. She wanted six children. Thatâ€™s always what she said, and itâ€™s always disturbed me. I thought, even when I was very young, that having so many babies would destroy the body sheâ€™d grow to have, would cost too much money, would be too much work, would colonize her entire life. It was (is) one of the pillars between the two of us. It reminded me that the very core of her conflicts with the very core of me, that we would never see eye to eye on certain things. Â I wanted (want) one child, vaguely; wanted (want) to get married, vaguely, but these were anxiety-producing eventualities, not dreams. My anxiety about marriage has faded away with age, but spread to a five alarm blaze when it comes to having a child. It absolutely terrifies me. This is one of the reasons why the mothers in Paula Bomerâ€™s Baby and Other Stories resonated with me so deeply that at times I was truly afraid, and at other times I felt relieved to the point of crying. This book made me feel so unalone.
Paula Bomer is an exceptional writer. After reading Baby, a compact collection of ten brutal, brilliantly rendered stories anchored by domestic life, I know I could read anything by her and find it compelling. She has a way of making the most mundane acts hypnoticâ€”many of her characters carry on their seemingly ordinary lives while holding a dank disappointment inside them. Bomer does not shy away from the darker aspects of married and family life. With Baby, Bomer has pissed red wine and smeared baby shit on a Norman Rockwell. I canâ€™t help but prefer her rendition.
In the opening story, The Mother of His Children, we meet Ted and Laura, a couple who haphazardly tripped into their marriage more than anything. The first paragraph shows us that Bomerâ€™s eye is bare and unblinking. If youâ€™re looking for still waters and empty pleasantries, find another book.
The car arrived and his wife held the baby on her hip and waved to him as he trotted down their steps. â€œCall me,â€ she said, and he felt he could smell her coffee mouth and sour breast milk smell as he slipped into the car. She looked old and beat-up, a bit of a double chin resting on her neck. One of her breasts was noticeably larger than the other; this had happened after the birth of their new son, Henry, when her milk came in. Their three-year-old son, Jake, bouncing around on the sidewalk screaming, â€œBye-bye Daddy! Bye-Bye Daddy!â€ He would be gone for only two days. No matter; he was thrilled, thrilled to leave them: stinky, loud, and demanding, all of them. And he didnâ€™t feel guilty about it. He loved his family, how they were always waiting for him to arrive in the evening. They needed him. He had framed photographs of them on his desk at work. But they were not always that pleasant to be around.
What I love most about this story, and all of the stories in Baby, is the emotional dissonance felt so deeply by her characters. That is what makes them utterly true, and ultimately compelling. Ted loves his wife, but she disgusts him. He loves his family, but he relishes being alone. They allow themselves to drift, but are filled with a vague anxiety about it. They grew eight hours apart every day. And the children. Those beautiful little devils, those terrifying lovely fiends. The children change everything, for better and worse, always simultaneously, like the sweet rot of old flowers.
In another stand-out, The Second Son, a mother struggles to love her second son equally, but her heart is swelled up, forever reserved by her first born son. In If There Were Two Boats, an older mother confronts her feelings of dislike for her adult son and new daughter-in-law, and the queasy mix of guilt and defensiveness it causes her, considering how tightly he still clings to her.
A story that particularly resonated with me was the titular tale, Baby. A woman tries to come to terms with her new life as a young mother in a big city, a life she has planned to the point of obsession, considering it a contest, and subsequently struggles with the reality of motherhood, the drudgery and the loneliness and the ever-buzzing fear. I hope, in vain, to be the inverted version of this womanâ€”the woman who fears and avoids child-rearing but in the end, finds it joyous and fulfilling. But, as Bomer is ever ready to remind us, life is rarely how you plan it, and can change in a breath, and time will never stand still, no matter how hard you want it to.
If I had to pick, I would say that Homesick is my favorite story. It revolves around Louisa, an Austrian woman, and an American man, John, who marries her and takes her to the American Midwest, where she struggles to fit in and find happiness. Despite its brevity, the story has an epic feel, and is the only story in Bomerâ€™s collection that has several distant locales. Johnâ€™s mental illness and Louisaâ€™s loneliness and the way their children diverge, each gravitating to one parent, is not shocking, yet fascinating. The story begins in a graduate school in Paris, which, after seeing and loving The Dreamers and Midnight in Paris, struck a deep chord within me. A place I havenâ€™t been and want to be. I mean really, who doesnâ€™t want to meet a beautiful woman at the Sorbonne?
Despite several stark differences between myself and these characters (namely their upper-middle-class-ness, their New York-ness, their whiteness, their heterosexuality), I could see flashes of myself in many of them. I saw me in the woman who forces her son to talk a walk with her to the neighboring graveyard in A Walk to The Cemeteryâ€”the way she emotionally ducks and parries, the way she lashes out at her son and the way it stings her immediately afterward, the way she looks at him and feels both in love and unloved, the desire to be with him there and somewhere else alone. The ending especially. But you will have to buy the book and find out how she does things to your heart. Another similarity I have with herâ€”we never share everything.
Bomerâ€™s desiccated prose matched with this carnival of failures and desires is a marvel to behold, and a privilege to enjoy. I applaud her literary bravery and her ability to break my heart. I hope sheâ€™ll come back soon and smash it again.
Dawn West (b. 1987) reads, writes, and eats falafel in Ohio