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Motherhood: A Novel by Sheila Heti
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Motherhood: A Novel

by Sheila Heti

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In a piece of occasionally self-indulgent and overly long autobiographical fiction, Sheila Heti explores the question of whether or not to have children. Her unnamed narrator, like Heti herself, is a Toronto writer approaching forty with a loudly ticking biological clock. All the central character’s friends are reproducing, and she feels a degree of abandonment by them as they surrender to the biological imperative she resists. Her boyfriend, Miles, who himself fathered a child when young, is supportive of whatever decision she comes to. He is of the opinion that a person can’t be both a great artist and a great parent. He is also somewhat contemptuous of the haughty superiority of those who have reproduced and fulfilled the social contract. Parenthood is the biggest scam of all, he observes at one point: Yes, it’s “a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest.”

I sometimes grew weary of the protagonist’s frequent recounting of dreams and lengthy transcriptions of her oracular coin tossing episodes. (She regularly flipped three coins to gain answers to hard questions about her own destiny.) Her seemingly endless moods, tears, and ruminations about her fights with her boyfriend also didn’t sit so well after a while. While I can’t exactly say I was a fan of Miles—and could have managed quite well without some of the more intimate details of the couple’s life—I did understand his occasional exasperation with all the crying and his need to escape the apartment in order to clear his head. There really are too many pages given to “relationship” issues and female insecurity in this novel, which reads mostly like an essay/personal memoir hybrid but sometimes a little too much like an extended piece of journal therapy. Having said that, I do think that by the end of the book, Heti has provided considerable context for her narrator’s dilemma, mostly by exploring the trauma in the history of the character’s Hungarian Jewish family.

The reader is informed that the narrator’s (paternal) great-grandparents died in the Holocaust. And even though her orphaned maternal grandmother, Magda, managed to survive the death camps, marrying the son of a woman she tended to there, she still failed to realize her dreams. A bright, determined woman who pursued first a high-school, then a university education as a mature student, Magda had ambitious plans for a law career. These were dashed by her husband’s illicit business practices. She would die in her early fifties of an distinctly female malady: uterine cancer. Her daughter, the narrator’s mother, has also been plagued by unhappiness. A workaholic pathologist whose primary relationship in life was always with her mother, she is incapable of moving out of intense grief over the loss of that parent. Having immigrated to Canada as a young married woman, she is debilitated by guilt about leaving her ailing mother in the old country. Overwork provides a certain respite, however.

The narrator learned early in life that the women in her family have defined themselves primarily through work, not through motherhood. There is a history, here, of chafing against societal and educational constraints on women. In light of all this—the unavailable, often tearful, clearly clinically depressed mother; the emphasis (by the women who came before her) on making something of one’s life— the introspective narrator’s ambivalence about childbearing makes complete sense. She recalls that as a child she wanted to grow up to be like her mother, who had left the family home and taken her own apartment so that she could focus, free of all distraction, on her medical studies. As an adult, the narrator intuits that creative work, not motherhood, is the answer for her, as well. Early on in the book, she speculates that her work has the potential to mend the generational sadness: “If I am a good enough writer, perhaps I can stop her [my mother] from crying. Perhaps I can figure out why she is crying, and why I cry, too, and I can heal us both with my words.”

As Heti’s book draws to a conclusion, her protagonist seeks medical help for her ongoing emotional distress, which threatens to destroy her relationship. Interestingly, psychoactive drugs lift the oppressive pall of self-absorption. The “shaking, jittering problem of living,” the ambivalence and internal circular arguments about whether or not to have a child abate. “This is me returning,” she writes, “This is me coming back from an interior that I did not know was so intense.” There seems to be some suggestion here that much of the sturm und drang is due to biology: endogenous depression and distressing hormonal fluctuations. The narrator visits her now-retired mother, who has relocated to a spacious, airy home, apparently on the British Columbia Coast. There, in a bathroom cabinet, she discovers a prescription bottle of antidepressants, and sees that she and her mother have had similar struggles. Her mother also admits that motherhood was not the most important part of her life—something the narrator is now ripe to accept given her own ambivalence about bearing a child, when a life of the mind—and the “expanse of freedom” it affords—is what she herself values most.

Yes, Motherhood is overtly an exploration of the question of whether or not to have a child. Finishing it, though, I felt it was just as much an exploration of maternal legacy—in this case, the carrying forward of sadness and familial values about the importance of stimulating or creative work. In the end, the narrator understands and owns what she stated much earlier in the book: “To transform the greyish and muddy landscape of my mind into a solid and concrete thing, utterly apart from me”—not a baby, but a book—“was my only hope.” ( )
  fountainoverflows | Oct 13, 2018 |
Wow... just wow!
The narrator of this book is in a state of continuous oscillation over the decision to have a child or not. She consults her friends, her family, her lover, even different forms of divination to try to make her decision one way or the other.
Oh my gods!!! Every once in a great while a book like this comes along... a book that makes me so irritated that I just can't seem to put it down. I was constantly yelling at this book and the author while I was reading it. The narrator's neuroticism seems to know no bounds in this book. And as she writes she constantly pit stops into a session with her I Ching coins. No I'm not kidding. She literally writes her questions down and then writes the response of the coins.
Do I love this book?
No
Do I love to not love this book?
Yes
.............. 🤨
I'm still under the suspicion that this is simply page filler bullshit.
I have to however give the author major props because as I stated before it is not often a book comes around that is able to bring this much emotion out of me whether the emotion be positive or negative. So Bravo Sheila Bravo! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
Through reading this book things get so bad that I start to question whether the narrator has obsessed herself into a psychosis or whether she actually has some underlining mental illness. The things she says about the people around her and how they make her feel is clearly some sort of psychosis whether it be mental illness or whether it be a temporary form. And the majority of the book is filled up with her having terrible nightmares or crying over something. It becomes very monotonous. As does the I Ching thing.
So in closing, would I recommend this book?
No 😝👎🏻 ( )
  TheReadingMermaid | Aug 1, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Sheila Heti is always interesting to read. Like her previous work, this seems a work of auto-fiction. It is about a woman in her thirties, partner to a man named Miles, a writer, childless. Those things are what the book is about, in increasing order of the amount of time spent on the topic.

In large part the book reads as an extended lyric essay about a woman deciding whether she should have a child or not. In truth, the repeated teasing at the question goes on too long, for my taste at an rate. The woman is intelligent, emotional (though the emotions are recounted in tranquility), and a tad metaphysical. the book tilts strongly towards the sincere and away from the humorous, with the section of repeated sections in which the narrator puts questions forward, which she answers by means of flipping three coins. These sequences are frequently funny.

The book takes a surprising (to me) near the end, in tone as much as anything, and I found the end satisfying, pleasant and hopeful. Various themes find some resolution, though in a different direction than one might expect.
  Capybara_99 | Jul 26, 2018 |
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In Motherhood, Sheila Heti asks what is gained and what is lost when a woman becomes a mother, treating the most consequential decision of early adulthood with the candor, originality, and humor that have won Heti international acclaim and made How Should A Person Be? required reading for a generation. In her late thirties, when her friends are asking when they will become mothers, the narrator of Heti's intimate and urgent novel considers whether she will do so at all. In a narrative spanning several years, casting among the influence of her peers, partner, and her duties to her forbearers, she struggles to make a wise and moral choice. After seeking guidance from philosophy, her body, mysticism, and chance, she discovers her answer much closer to home. Motherhood is a courageous, keenly felt, and starkly original novel that will surely spark lively conversations about womanhood, parenthood, and about how, and for whom, to live.… (more)

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