There are plenty of books and films about men fleeing domesticity, about men who resist the surrender of self that making a family requires, about men who are ambivalent about being a husband and a father, with all its joys and failures. There are far fewer books and films concerning women who do and feel these things, because the socially ingrained shame and socially inflicted dishonor, even these days, is ruinous. There is a certain venom we reserve for bad mothers, for fucked up women. Especially if theyâ€™re pregnant.
This is one of the main reasons that Paula Bomerâ€™s brilliant debut novel, Nine Months, is called â€œbold, alarming, provocative, daring.â€ I would agree with all of those descriptors, but it is also heartening, even lovely. This is the road trip novel Iâ€™ve always wanted to read. Bomerâ€™s young Brooklyn mother, Sonia, abandons her husband, Dick, and two boys in the midst of an unplanned third pregnancy. Sonia gives all those tortured fictional men a run for their money, engaging in casual sex and smoking weed and visiting the people and landscapes that haunt her, while wrestling with her bone-deep ambivalence about her forthcoming daughter, and her work as an artist, which she abandoned years before.
Soniaâ€™s voice carries the novel. She is sharp, funny, and somehow both defiant and frightened. Her moods riot; one moment she resents her sons and feels isolated, trapped, and the next she craves them, soaking in their love and her â€œprecious, mediocre life.â€ Her brutal honesty thrilled me, and I loved her fights with Dick. They were so vicious, like fights between long-time lovers can be. They love and resent each other with an intensity that Bomer slaps down before you like a platter of rare, unadorned meat. No bullshit, no irony.
Soniaâ€™s only friend in Brooklyn, Clara, is a wealthy housewife with two kids, Tom and Willa. Sonia is drawn to her, a little in love with her, like she was with her high school friend, Katrina. Clara is a deeply fucked up woman wrapped in East Coast prep wear, a controlled explosion if there ever was one. Claraâ€™s daughter, Willa, puts Sonia on edge, makes her wary of her own upcoming girl.
Willa stares at the two of them, her mouth set in a poutâ€¦She freaks Sonia outâ€¦She feels spied upon. She feels judged. She feels like this little two-year-old girl is already sizing her up to see how she can bring her down. She feels like Willa knows how to be mean already. No hitting on impulse, without thinking about it, like her boys do. Not that kind of meanness, not the behaving without thinking sort of spontaneous behavior. No Willa, two-year-old Willa, whoâ€™s still in diapers, who still sucks on her thumb, already knows how to be a fucking bitch.
Soniaâ€™s observations are priceless. Through them, we come to know her as the uncertain yet passionate woman that she is. We see her struggle with motherhood, the personal and the cultural. For instance: does she really want a girl?
Her friends, the other mothers in the neighborhood, want girls. Nearly every woman sheâ€™s met in the playground wants a girl. A girl, just like me! A girl for whom to buy pink dresses. One womanâ€”an educated, white, middle-class womanâ€”with three kids, the youngest being a girl, a little thing, maybe eighteen months old, explained, â€œShe helps me pick up after the boys. Sheâ€™s just a baby, but she knows how to pick up. My boys donâ€™t, of course.â€ Even now, women still want girls to help them around the house! Sonia doesnâ€™t want a girl to help her clean up after her boys. Her boys know how to put away their trains, their dinosaurs, their shoes. What does it mean to think a boy doesnâ€™t know how to pick up after himself? What does it mean to think a little girl should pick up after her brothers?
When Sonia flees fast and far, she makes a stop in her Indiana hometown, trying, fitfully, to retrace her life, and she finds Katrina, the high school friend she was a little in love with, in that way heterosexual girls can be.
Katrina. Beautiful, fabulous, irresistible Katrinaâ€”men were sucked down into Katrina as if she were some wild, inescapable drain. And yet, she had a big nose, occasional acne, tiny breasts, and she was barely 5â€™4â€. How? Katrina, who had painted swirly, psychedelic things. Elaborate sixties druggy paintings while listening to scratched-up Robert Johnson records. Katrina, who taught Sonia that being female wasnâ€™t weak. The womanâ€”the girl, really, they had only been nineteen, the both of themâ€”that taught Sonia that lying on your back with your legs spread open was a kind of power, especially if it felt really good. The one that taught Sonia how to wear a short skirt, how to shake her ass when she walked in said skirt, and how to turn every eye in the room, even if you donâ€™t have tits, because Katrina didnâ€™t have tits either. What was it about her?
I loved this moment, and I loved Soniaâ€™s interactions with Katrina, this former â€œbad girlâ€ current beatific stoner wife, spouting retrograde about hunter-gatherer cultures. Sonia is shaken by Katrinaâ€™s transformation, and leaves with a lie, promising she will go back to her husband and boys. Instead, she resumes her road trip. There are several exhilarating scenes of Sonia on the road, particularly her hasty, violent one-night stand and the time she fucks herself while driving, straddling a hemorrhoid doughnut. The climatic blow-out she has with her former professor/lover, Philbert Rush, a man “born raging,” is a dark and wild debate about what it means to be an artist, a woman, a mother, a human, another gaping maw of want. I could go on but I donâ€™t want to ruin it. Itâ€™s well worth the price of admission.
After reading this powerful, entertaining novel, and Bomerâ€™s excellent collection of stories, Iâ€™m convinced. Anything she writes, I want it.
Dawn West (b. 1987) reads, writes, and eats falafel in Ohio.