Books: Various

Collective Grade: Hmmm…

I’m actually a chapter or so into next week’s book, a set of theological essays on God and genocide called Show Them No Mercy, and I’m finding it enlightening. But I started it last week and then, for various reasons, needed a week of just plain fun reading.

So instead of finishing it, I raided the library and had myself a chick lit week. I read five novels this week (they go pretty fast): Jemima J. and Mr. Maybe, both by Jane Green; The Next Big Thing by Johanna Edwards; Glitter Baby by Susan Elizabeth Phillips; and Sushi for Beginners, by Marian Keyes.


Come on, guys, what do YOU read, the adventures of Dirk Pitt? Sports Illustrated? We all need fun reading. And no one with a family and a job (which is to say, no one who works 18-hour days) picks up Proust at 11 PM to relax. I read chick lit, and I’m not embarrassed.

Well, I’m a little embarrassed, mostly because my father reads my blog.

Anyway, this was an enlightening week of reading. Two of these books were repeats; I read Jemima J. and Sushi for Beginners several years ago when I wrote a review-essay on “women’s fiction” for Books & Culture, and wanted to see how they struck me now. The other three were new.

Back then, I concluded that chick lit was as interested in food as in love, maybe more so. That obsession is alive and well. The Next Big Thing is about an obese woman who joins a reality show to lose weight and change her life, and finds love (I’ll give you a moment to recover from the shock). The heroine of Glitter Baby diets for most of her teen years and then liberates herself by gaining twenty pounds. There’s lots of calorie counting and nibbling and binging in all these books, and if you want to know what I think about it, you can read the essay.

But in this past week, what really leapt out to me was this: chick lit has no idea what to do with mothers.

I note this in passing in my earlier essay. But now I have an eight-year-old daughter, and I am astounded by how much the heroines of these novels hate their mothers. All of these women are trying to create a brand new life for themselves from scratch—a good life, a satisfying life—but this inevitably involves rejecting their mothers and the world where their mothers live. Rejecting them with loathing and scorn, too. “My mother on her own is bad enough,” scoffs Libby, the heroine of Mr. Maybe, “but with her ridiculous twittering friends it’s just a total nightmare….I want to kill them. All of them. And in my mother’s case I’d make it particularly tortuous.” Libby’s mother doesn’t understand why her daughter wants a career in PR; she just wants her daughter to get married, which Libby finds completely laughable.

Never mind that the whole books is about finding a man; no, if your mother wants it, it must be horrendous.

Chick-lit mothers come in four varieties: mothers who keep telling their daughters to lose weight, mothers who want to feed daughters who are trying to diet, mothers who try to suck their daughters back into boring drab lives, and dead mothers. All of them, except for the dead ones, spend every moment criticizing their daughters. Jemima J.’s mother tongue-lashes her about her weight until Jemima gets thin, at which point her mother calls her a scarecrow, and Jemima finally has an epiphany: “God knows I’ve tried. I mean, I’ve achieved the one thing that I always thought she wanted, but no, it’s still not enough, and I suddenly realize that, for whatever reasons, I will somehow never be good enough for her. I will never make her happy. I am either too fat or too thin. There is no middle ground. Nothing I every do is destined to please her.”

Sushi for Beginners’s Lisa dreads going home: “With every visit the house she’d grown up in became smaller and more shockingly dreary. In the poky little rooms crammed with dirt-cheap furniture, she felt shiny and foreign, with her false nails and glossy leather shoes. Uncomfortably aware that her handbag probably cost more than the couch she was sitting on. But though her mum and dad oohed and aahed respectfully over her fabulousness, they were fluttery-nervous around her. She should have dressed down on her visits, to try to narrow the gap. But she needed as much stuff as possible, to wear like a suit of armor, so that she couldn’t be sucked back in, subsumed by her past. She hated it all, then hated herself.”

You get the idea, so I won’t keep on quoting. All of these women are trying to create a brand new life for themselves from scratch—a good life, a satisfying life, a life where they inhabit a new world. By definition, this world is the opposite to everything their mothers treasure.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly why this is. In part, it seems to be an inability to deal with aging; middle age is inevitably pictured as a time of disappointment and automatic boredom. (I’m forty and haven’t yet found this to be the case, although I have quite a bit of middle age to live through yet.)

But partly it seems to be because Mom is too powerful to fit into the new worlds these women build. She shatters them, shows them to be illusory. She has to be rejected for them to thrive. She has to disappear–and in most of these books, she does. The daughters find men, but they walk away from their mothers, and there is no resolution of difficulties, no restoration of relationship.

In the end, it wasn’t quite as relaxing a week of reading as I’d hoped. (I may need to go back to rereading Agatha Christie when I need a mental break.) But it did leave me with a deep and abiding gratitude for my own mother–who helps me teach my children, tells me that she likes my clothes, shares her books with me, and assures me that I’m doing a good job with my life when that’s what I most need to hear.


Showing 27 comments
  • AmyL

    Awwww! What a great tribute to your mom. 🙂 You are blessed to have such a wonderful relationship with such a wonderful person.

  • Jeannine

    My days are spent editing history books and political articles for magazines and web sites. When I want to relax I choose lighter reading. My favorite mystery writers are Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, M C Beaton, and Rhys Bowen. I also read everything by Alexander McCall Smith — his Portuguese Irregular Verb series and 44 Scotland Street books are fantastic. P G Wodehouse always makes me laugh. I think his books have a timeless appeal.

    The only Chick Lit books I really enjoyed were the Shopaholic series. When I have access to my home library in the States once again, I plan on rereading them.

  • mary kathryn

    Wow – I’ll avoid all those books. My mom is a wonder. And I’m only 5 years ahead of you, but I love my 40s – life is more fun than ever. Well, for mindless fun I used to read Anne George and her silly murder mysteries. They were hysterical, and now my 16 yo daughter is laughing through them. To relax at night before bed, I read the latest “I Just Moved into an Old Castle in Tuscany” book. There are lots of those around. They must be running out of castles soon.

  • Christine Guest

    When I need to relax, I read YA fantasy, historical fiction, how to books about crafts or whatever comes next in my son’s reading list for SOTW 😉 More and more I’m identifying with the hero’s/heroine’s wise mentors than with the actual hero. I suppose chick lit is interesting for the same reason the first few chapters of a biography is: we have all been children, and if we live long enough, a confused single person. So the struggles of the heroine are familiar, and she vindicates us! But how awful that so many people buying chick lit books could identify with having a mother who actually is like the voice of false guilt in our heads.

    My Mom teaches my son his Latin, feeds us every Sunday afternoon, sleds with the kids, actually asks my advise about sewing projects, and respects my husband. She lives one mile away, and we love having her that close.

  • Heather in AZ

    Loved your blog today! My own mother died when I was 4, just 2 months before I started kindergarten. I have to say that I have seen many of my peers over the years take their mothers for granted. Now that I’m a mother, I’m more than ever in awe of motherhood.

    On the other hand, those mothers who criticize constantly – well it’s no wonder their daughters want to get away from that. However, the bigger picture seems allusive to both the daughters and mothers in this category. If each woman, mother or not, would learn to love herself – trully and appropriately – she wouldn’t need to criticize others around her. In my quest to understand the whole mother issue, I find this quite fascinating.

    Your own mother is a shining beacon of how truly beautiful womanhood can be. I bought her CD “If I Could Do it Over Again” from Peace Hill Press, and it’s obvious that she cherishes motherhood and just being a good woman. The world needs more courageous women, like your mom, who value themselves and those around them appropriately.

    On related note: I’ve been using your “Well-Educated Mind” book to accompany my own version of 52 books in 52 weeks (it won’t be 52, but it will be more than last year). I found your brief description of “Jane Eyre” enlightening. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Now that I’ve actually read the book (I’ve seen the PBS version of the movie), what I found the most poignant was how Jane was able to learn to love God, and how she was able to be a mother figure to Adele. Even after the abuse and torment she suffered in her early childhood. I believe it was Helen Burns, a mother figure to Jane, that helped Jane learn to love and not despise both God and mothering.

    Again, I am in awe of motherhood!

    P.S. Love your work! Huge fan! Thanks for sharing!

  • Bob Wise

    Time to dig into some mentally stimulating and mother-angst-free science fiction! 🙂

  • Kendra


  • Alice

    I’m not sure it’s unique to chick-lit books. Children’s literature has a long history of having to kill of the mothers (and fathers) or somehow remove them from the narrative before the kids can have any fun. Anne of Green Gables, Narnia books, Harry Potter, The Boxcar Children to name a few.

    I agree that it’s vaguely disturbing now that I’m a mother. I hope my kids don’t one day see me just as that person they have to get rid of in order to live their own lives. But as a kid I loved all the orphan books.

  • Lori

    I regularly read chick lit for destressing, but I’m not a published author and I didn’t finish my Ph.D. 🙂 I think that you have an incredible relationship with your mother and I don’t believe that this is the case with most people. Perhaps I’m jaded but a casual perusal of what I’ve heard and seen in mother-daughter relationships amongst my friends does not yield another strong positive connection like that which you share with your mother. Just sayin’.

    I read a chick lit novel last year about a fat woman who somehow got transported to a world where fat was beautiful and skinny was horrid. In that environment, she managed to get a grip on her overeating and figure out what the roots of her food issue was. It was much more interesting than it sounds. It totally freaked out my brain. And I wish I could remember the name of it. I’ll see if I can look back and find it. I might want to read it again.

    Have you gotten into the foodie murder mysteries? Those are also my guilty pleasures.

    Have an awesome day, Susan!

  • Heather Q.

    The mother-hate is an interesting observation and may explain why I’ve never really gotten into that genre. Agatha Christie is so orderly and even the disorder (the murder) is organized by the end of the book. When my mind is chaotic, I need that structure. BTW, did you know that P.D. James has a new Dalgleish mystery out?

  • Rebekah

    …and assures me that I’m doing a good job with my life when that’s what I most need to hear.


  • Christina

    That made me cry; I really miss my mom. In so many ways I’m like her and in just as many I’m different, but I can’t imagine my life without her. And she’s far away in Richmond! You’re closer to her than I am. Maybe there ought to be a new genre of “Chick Lit.” for those of us who actually want our moms around!

  • A Circle of Quiet

    Yes to the Wodehouse suggestion, unless you don’t want to read hilarious angst about aunts (commonly referred to as “nephew crushers.”)

    I don’t have a lot of patience for whiny writing about mothers and daughters. But it still doesn’t tempt me to dive into the depths of sci fi. Just a good murder mystery for me.


  • Katie

    Another “hear, hear” for Wodehouse! I’ve converted my children (right down to the 5 year old) to become Wodehousians. (A car trip is just not complete without Wodehouse on audio.) Hey, his stuff may not be deep, but at least my kids are improving their vocabulary!

  • Nan in Mass

    I’m starting out the year reading all the Patricia McKillips. Some of them portray strong families still living together as adults, a major reason I like them. That and their chaos. My original family still functions as a family even though we are all grown up and married with children of our own. I am super grateful for my parents’ love and support and help. I can’t imagine raising my children without them. And I am sure my overweight mother’s deliberate casualness towards her children’s eating is the reason I am not anorexic despite ballet having given me a completely impractical idea of the ideal womanly body.

    I have NO problem reading light literature. Sigh. Are Angela Thirkells chick lit? Or D.E. Stevens? Maybe I just like my chick lit English and older? Just plain older doesn’t work. I just finished Coffee, Tea, and Me out of a horrid sort of fascination at what the 60’s looked like if you were older and uninhibitted. (I was alive but missed all that sort of thing. Thank goodness.) I think I’ll avoid modern US chick lit and stick with fantasy for now.

  • Sarah

    I thought The Nanny Diaries was pretty good for chick lit. I haven’t read too many other titles.

    You should feel very blessed to have such a supportive mother.

  • Katrina

    Actually, the Shopoholic books do not treat the mother that way. But yea, I’ve noticed the “hate the mother” trend myself. Hmmm…I wonder if there are any books that represent the father/son relationship in the same way?

  • Karen

    Would your mom adopt me? Seriously. I think so many women out there DO have a negative relationship with their mothers because the mothers try to live their life over again through their daughters, and get upset when their daughters make choices they (the mothers) don’t agree with. I love reading about how you and your parents live near each other and work cooperatively for the good of the family and the kids.

  • Maria

    Thanks for pinpointing my own problem with chick lit. I admit when I need light reading, like another commenter, I grab YA literature. It is entertaining and light, and usually has a good message. I have a great relationship with my mother and with my mother-in-law and so I really don’t relate to most of the tenuous issues facing heroines in chick lit. I find the same problem exists on the television, only with animosity directed towards the father figures who are clueless, blundering idiots completely out of touch with their kids, or they are controlling chauvinists. Parents are an easy target to create tension. I just prefer stories with just a little more depth and creativity… with a wicked magician, or a corrupt government!

  • Janet

    For me, it’s part of our cultural obsession with darkness. I look at the most popular movies – Twilight, Dark Night, No Country for Old Men, Knocked Up, anything pretty much that has come out in the last 10 years, and I see it in most popular modern fiction as well. There is nothing really redeeming or desirable about good or being/doing good in any of these movies/books, just the darkness of human relationships, the inevitability of destruction that comes with “traditional” relationships, and how freedom is found by walking away from stultifying (always) familial relationships. Yes, I know I’m generalizing with my analysis here, but if you start paying attention you’ll notice it dominates our popular culture. I can’t remember the last movie or even TV show that came out that was a love story or was about a functional family (remember Family Ties, the Cosby Show, even Frasier…or go further back, and remember The Waltons, Little House on the Prarie, Happy Days – yes, I’m in my 40’s too! ). It has been a real shift in our culture.

  • Kristi

    Beautifully written of course. I envy the Mom who supports and think you did a wonderful job of describing the enduring relationship you share. A wonderful Mom makes a fantastic Grandmother and I think she definitely fits the bill.

    Thanks for sharing that we all need a little mind candy from time to time.

  • strider

    I am glad to read such a glowing tribute to your mom. I found her to be wonderfully encouraging at the Cincinnati convention and have remembered and treasured some of the wise things she said. I envy you your mom, and hope I can find a way to be as lovely as she is for my own dear children.

  • Sherri

    I haven’t read much chick lit so I haven’t noticed the mother-angst trend, however, hasn’t that and parent-bashing in general been part of our culture for decades? Blame your problems on your parents? I grew up in a troubled family and so did my Mom, and when I was younger she drove me crazy, but she did a great job raising us under difficult circumstances. I love her and admire her. She loved us and took care of us, often on her own, taught us to love God and to do what’s right. She is beautiful, smart and hard-working and loves her kids. She has always had a flair for decorating and making our home nice, no matter how little money we had. She’s very supportive of me and homeschooling. Was she critical and perfectionistic sometimes? Yes, but it was because she wanted what was best for us. She has really lightened up on that now too. I like her and get along with her, but my sister, who is 16 years younger (I’m 46, my sister’s 30), has quite a bit of animosity towards her and has no trouble expressing it! I’m shocked at her hostility and disrespect. And of all of us children, my sister had life the eastiest, yet she is the most critical of my Mom and seems to blames her for her own bad decisions. I think some of it is a generational thing, some of it is I share the same values as my Mom, whereas my sister has rejected Mom’s values.

  • Cathy

    I just finished Sophie Kinsella’s “The Undomestic Goddess,” and it was a welcome break during a difficult week at work. There is mother-bashing in the book, but the mother in question deserves it — she is a cold and heartless careerist. Much of the plot is preposterous, but that is part of the fun. I used to rely on murder mysteries for relaxation, but I’m in the process of rewriting one of my own, and I’m terrified of copying something from another book in the genre, however inadvertently! So I’ve turned to chick lit. I should know this, but is Bob Wise your father, Susan? If so, I would love to have a few recommendations of good science fiction novels! I’ve enjoyed Poul Anderson’s time travel books, but am otherwise not familiar with the sci fi genre.

  • Susan

    Bob’s my brother and the source of all my SF reading. 🙂 I’ll post a few of his recommendations to me shortly (that’s next week’s reading project).

  • Cathy

    Thank you, Susan!

  • GailV

    I have a sudden vision of Rapunzel retold as Chick Lit. It has many of the elements — a horrible old hag raised her, she needed to escape from the hag, she never saw her mother (or the hag) again in her new, adult life. And, of course, all the business about the hair, which was the equivalent of the endless discussion about clothes, shoes and body image in our contemporary versions.

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