The Short Version: Park Slope. To a New Yorker, you don’t even have to say anything else: immediately, images of strollers and babies and food co-ops and neo-yuppie parents spring to mind. This is a story about several of those neo-yuppie parents, living their own variations on Desperate Housewives on a daily basis.
The Review: In a moment of inspired serendipity, a good friend of mine moved (on the day I started this book) to a new apartment on Prospect Park West, along with his lovely wife and beautiful baby. I open with this statement because he is fond of making the occasional joke about his Brooklyn-ness – he’s a writer, has a beard, now walks around Park Slope with a stroller. It’s the sort of cliché that is comfortable in its accuracy – and there’s a certain level of… dare I say ‘comfort’? in Park Slope being what it is. One autumn morning last fall, I walked past Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss and their brood of children and I thought “yes, I could see why this would be a place that one might want to live.”
But even as Brooklyn invites and delights in the clichés, it also remains blissfully resistant to certain attempts to put those clichés on a page. In fact, so does New York in general – although folks keep trying. Motherland is one of those tries – and while I have to imagine it will appeal to a certain subset of readers (perhaps those who were reinvigorated by reading 50 Shades of Grey but wanted to move on to something slightly [and I do mean slightly] more high-brow), I mostly found the whole thing to be just not at all my cup of tea.
Which is sort of strange, because Sohn does a great job at dropping her characters into worlds that I inhabit or have inhabited: a subplot featuring one of the husbands headed out to LA to pitch a screenplay reminds me of my time working at CAA, another character is rehearsing for a Broadway show, and a supporting character has a show that goes up at The Public – which is where I’m currently writing this review. Throw in gay friends who talk about Grindr, new parents who are dealing with the madness of a baby, and all of the Girls-esque Brooklyn moments and it would seem like the makings for a sitcom that I’d heartily enjoy. Except Sohn, not once, manages to make anything ring true.
There’s a slight Bret-Easton-Ellis vibe, in terms of name-dropping cultural references – actually, a better analogy would be Greg Olear, an author whose work I enjoy but who sometimes gets a bit reference-happy. But the thing is, Olear (especially in Fathermucker) does a much better job at wringing out the emotional truths of parenthood. I’d be fine with famous people appearing in this book – but Sohn seems more interested in them than in her characters. Indeed, her characters seem to be vehicles to deliver moments instead of actual living creations; there’s nothing that feels remotely like real life here. Instead, we run the gamut: alcohol, drugs (both designer and street), anonymous sex, weird sex, incest, mistaken identities, infidelities, misbehaving children, misbehaving parents, and pop culture references that I bet will seem fun to anyone who doesn’t live in New York City.
A quick digressionary note on that last one, if you’ll allow it: Ms. Sohn spins up a Broadway revival of Fifth of July, the Lanford Wilson play, for one of her characters to be starring in – opposite Jon Hamm, Ben Whishaw, Allison Janney, a Fanning child, and Blythe Danner. Never-you-mind the casting, which would put The Best Man revival to shame, or the author’s warped sense of how the theater works in New York (I lump the odd La Diabolique event and its opening night into that, too, by the way) – but the faux Ben Brantley review of Fifth of July made me want to throw the book into traffic on 42nd Street. It reads like fan fiction. Reviewer pastiche. And it just… if you’re going to go to the effort to really dive into this world (and this goes for all of the famous-people-cameos scattered throughout the book), you really ought to commit to it. Actually make it seem real. Instead, all of the famous people pretty much sound the same and the name-dropping does nothing but seem like a list of whatever famous people Ms. Sohn could pull to mind at any given moment.
I hate to make it seem like Ms. Sohn got nothing right but, the more I think about it, that’s sort of how I feel – and I acknowledge, once again, that this is one of those books where there’s a whole class of reader that I am not & will never be (literally, physically) and they’re the ones who will probably eat it up. The characters are, to a one, completely unlikable but also unmemorable. They’re all two-dimensional and any attempts to give them any sorts of growth feel forced, added for the sake of introducing more CRAZY PLOT MOMENTS! I mean, the last hundred pages is basically nothing more than a series of ZOMG!!1! sorts of revelations that are meant to make the reader breathlessly turn the pages… but instead I sort of just rolled my eyes harder and harder at each one, until they were threatening to roll out (and onto something, anything else).
Rating: 1.5 out of 5. There is some humor here and I certainly know (or have, at least, seen) parents like these – the ones who probably shouldn’t have had children yet because they, themselves, aren’t exactly adults. And the attempt elevates the book from a basic 1 – but I really just took no pleasure in this read. Not a whit. I was irritated, frustrated, and mostly just found it bordering on offensive. Not offensive in a “GASP!” sort of way – but offensive that a subject so ripe for fiction (Park Slope parents) was written about poorly, so simply, so lacking in nuance or intelligent commentary. That said, if you’re a Park Slope parent or if you’re looking for some run of the mill chick lit, there are worse places to go than Motherland.