This week for The Stacks Book Club, author Jo Piazza and I discussed Sheila Heti’s newest book, Motherhood. You can listen to our full conversation here. There are no spoilers on this episode so feel free to enjoy.
If you are not familiar with Motherhood here is what the book is about
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 work of biographical fiction, a genre of which I’ve not read much. In This case, the book feels like it is Heti’s own life and thoughts, but shielded loosely by the idea that it is still fiction. The book essentially feels like a memoir with the caveat that it is not one. The main character is even named Sheila. While I’m no expert on this genre, it felt nearly impossible to distinguish between the author and the “characters”. For me, this was the biggest barrier to really diving into the book. I was constantly trying to figure out what was biography and what was fiction.
Heti’s writing is beautiful (and also somewhat experimental), and many of the debates she has with herself through the course of the book about childrearing are wonderful. She examines many facets of motherhood. including difficulty getting pregnant and abortions. I could relate to the questions she asked herself, if this was the right path for her and her life and her partner. There are conversations around what it means for a Jewish woman, who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, to not want to have children. Heti explores what happens to a woman’s creativity if she decides to have children. These ideas are important and nuanced and interesting and I’m glad she brings them up.
The overall tone of this book is mostly cynical. The conversation doesn’t feel balanced, nor does Heti seem to be weighing the options equally. She taps into the anxiety around loss of self accurately, but misses the value added that children can bring. I’ve not had kids, and I am currently weighing my options about having them, and while I can relate to her doubts, I do wish the joys were presented more evenly. Motherhood leans into the anxiety and never lets up. She makes her point early on, and the book could end, but instead she labors with her thinking, as if to prove the tediousness of her thought process. I would have loved the book as an article in The New Yorker (long, but not book long).
Motherhood is not for everyone. I would even venture to say it is not for most people. If you’re interested a meditation on having children, and you like beautiful and experimental prose, this might be a nice fit. If you prefer your fiction to be traditional you might skip this one. There are also plenty of memoirs that examine these same questions without the guise of fiction that could feel more straightforward.
Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Jo Piazza discussing Motherhood.
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st Edition edition (May 1, 2018)
- 3/5 stars
- Buy Motherhood on Amazon
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