Park Slope parents behaving badly

Amy Sohn’s sequel to Prospect Park West turns an excited but acute eye on parents who, racked with midlife crises, seem intent on acting like children.

Nancy McDermott

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Motherland is the sequel to Prospect Park West, Amy Sohn’s hyperrealist novel set in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In the first book of the series, Sohn used a mix of real and imagined people and events to explore the excesses of modern urban parenting culture. In Motherland, she revisits many of same themes and characters, but this novel is not so much about new parenthood as midlife crisis, two life events which, for the first time in history, are tending to occur around the same time.

Like Prospect Park West, Motherland takes place over the course of summer, but this time the story begins many miles away from Brooklyn, on Cape Cod. The central protagonist, Rebecca Rose, and her family are sharing a visually stunning, but actually damp and depressing, $5,000-a-week modernist ‘cottage’ with their friends, CC and Danny Gottlieb. They’ve come to ‘summer’ with two other families, the Shanahans and Marco and Todd, a gay couple with a young son.

In the opening scene, the four families, or The Crowd as Rebecca calls them, have gathered at Dyer Pond. The pond is one of the Cape’s hidden crystalline swimming holes where the families have gone to relax, but also to avoid running into other people from Park Slope. One of the main things that unites The Crowd is their common disdain for the inhabitants of their home neighbourhood. It’s an idyllic scene, but like the architecturally significant cottage, things are not as pleasant as they appear.

Three of the parents at the pond are hiding explosive secrets that will blow up before the end of the summer. For Rebecca, it’s the truth about her son Benny’s parentage. For Danny Gottlieb, it’s his disillusionment with fatherhood and a note informing him that a child he fathered through a youthful donation to a sperm bank wants to meet. For Marco, the mostly stay-at-home partner in what is effectively a gay marriage, it is the growing realisation that the dream of monogamy and family so precious to his partner, Todd, isn’t really what he has in mind. And that’s just for starters.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, two other characters from Prospect Park West, the kleptomaniac actress Melora Leigh and the frumpy stay-at-home mom Karen Bryant Shapiro, are having troubles of their own. Melora has split from her filmstar husband, Stuart Ashby, and turned to Broadway in a desperate attempt to revive her flagging career. She is starring opposite Jon Hamm and Blythe Danner in a remake of the play The Fifth of July. But she doesn’t see eye to eye with the director and things aren’t going well.

Karen, too, has become a single parent after her husband Matty left her for a transsexual escort named Valentina. To add insult to injury, he’s just announced that he will be sending her a $1,000 less money each month due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ (Karen suspects surgery for Valentina).

With five parents in various states of personal and professional crisis, it doesn’t take long for events to erupt into a perfect storm of existential angst, epic narcissism and crazed, reckless behaviour.

If some of it seems implausible – the movie stars, the stroller bandit, the cabaret singer, the toe fetishist – Sohn’s eye for detail and her knack for parody keeps it funny and a hair’s breadth this side of believable. And this is a good thing because otherwise the characters’ self-absorption would be hard to take. Their children, their husbands and wives sometimes seem like bit players in a frantic bid for self-fulfillment. Yes, it’s entertaining, but all the same it’s a relief when the chickens come home to roost. The only thing more compelling is what happens afterwards.

At first glance there isn’t much to admire in these characters. They are almost childishly narcissistic, reckless and self-destructive. There’s no question of anyone sticking anything out, and no hint that boredom or adversity in a marriage might not be grounds for chucking it in. No one is doing anything particularly noble. But it raises the question: are these people really so bad if everyone else is the same?

Is there room for humility and humanity in this new normal? Sohn’s characters don’t change very much as a result of their experiences. But they struggle on and somehow we’re left with an inexplicable feeling that it might just be enough.

Motherland is both lightning-fast beach reading and well-observed social satire. Though the book won’t last the summer, Rebecca Rose and company will stay with you well into the autumn.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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