April 2022 – A Good Mother by Lara Bazelton
It is always a thrill to find a book you just can’t put down, and Zion’s readers encountered one in A Good Mother by Lara Bazelton. Whether you like or dislike the characters, whether you buy some of the more outrageous scenes or not, and whether either of the two lead characters remotely resemble your own opinion on what makes a good mother, this book is a page turner. As a debut novel, it earned a positive review from the New York Times, no small accomplishment, which brought it to the attention of one of Zion’s readers. So, will the Club agree with the professional critic? Let’s see.
At its most basic, this novel is a tale of two mothers – one, a teenage military wife with a new baby accused of stabbing her husband to death, and two, a federal public defender with a new baby and an amazing acquittal in a recent case. Details emerged as the book progressed. Luz, the military wife, had a tumultuous childhood with no parental influence and was too much for her grandmother to handle. She made some unwise decisions along the way and tended to use sex as a tool to manipulate men. Luz’s soldier husband had reconnected with an old girlfriend and now had a pregnant wife and pregnant mistress. He was a large man and a habitual drunk who outweighed his diminutive wife by over 100 pounds. On the night of the stabbing, Luz had called her husband’s commanding officer for assistance yet again.
Abby, the public defender, while older than Luz, also lacked strong parental influence during her formative years, and was heading down a road of no return with alcohol until she developed a relationship with a federal marshal involved in a murder case she was defending. Obtaining the acquittal by somehow discovering evidence tampering late in that trial had been a slap in the face to the prosecutor, but Abby was focused only on performing for the jury and coming out on top. The relationship with the marshal led to cohabitation and a baby. When Luz’s case appeared (a convenient military law allowed the trial to be moved stateside from the German base where it occurred), Abby was moved by the young new mother and sensed another opportunity for an adrenaline rush in front of a jury. She badly wanted in and was appalled to find the only way was to be a team with a junior public defender already assigned. Sharing the stage wasn’t her plan, but it was that or nothing. Only other problem – Nic, her significant other, wanted her to stay home on maternity leave, and the former prosecutor was now a federal judge and assigned Luz’s case. How would this all play out?
The author employed an interesting technique in this novel. She permeated it with references to what happened in Abby’s preceding trial so much that our readers thought there was an actual book based on that trial. A practicing attorney herself, Ms. Bazelton nailed the legal office and courthouse atmosphere as well as the terminology according to one of Zion’s Book Club members who also hails from the legal field. However, the member said, some of the scenes (the strip tease in the judge’s office, the junior public defender and Luz re-enacting the night of the murder for the jury, the ongoing sexual encounters between Luz and the junior p.d., and the huge gamble to limit the scope of the trial to a Murder 1 verdict rather than second degree murder or manslaughter) would never fly in real life. Motions for mistrial would abound! While the attorney-client privilege can last beyond the grave, an attorney must nevertheless report any crime a client commits. Carefully choosing your words to avoid asking a question for which you do NOT want to know the answer is a learned skill set for lawyers. Some of Zion’s members wondered if an editor might have told the author to jazz up the novel a bit with the above- mentioned scenes. They definitely made for interesting reading!
We also found it disconcerting that the author would have characters say they didn’t want to present as stereotypes but then have them do exactly that – The hot-blooded Latina, the not-so-bright big drunk white guy, the type-A career woman solely focused on climbing that next step on the success ladder, the arrogant judge – the book was peppered with stereotypes. Yet they did not interfere in our engagement with what came on the next page. We acknowledged and moved on.
One thing the book certainly did was shine a light on the choices facing working mothers and how they are judged no matter their decision. As one reader observed, the judging is often done by men (as in this novel where Nic, the prosecutor, and a close friend all urged Abby to stay home with her baby), but women can also be harsh critics. It is a very difficult decision to make compounded by the fact that today most families need two incomes to enjoy the same standard of living they experienced while growing up. Book club members who worked outside the home when their children were young recalled how difficult balancing work and family was. There was never enough energy or hours in a day to do a stellar job as an employee or mother. If you throw in commuting time, many mothers are only seeing their children briefly in the morning and evening. Is it better for the child to have an unfulfilled, resentful mother at home or a largely absent one who is happy to interact when she manages to be on the scene? Is it better for the mother to suppress her career aspirations and feel as if her brain is atrophying due to lack of stimulating adult conversation, or should she return to her career path at the earliest opportunity and allow others to see her baby’s first steps and hear the first words? Each mother loves her child but feels the urge to prove herself on a larger stage. Could Abby have been a super successful public defender if she had stayed home, or was her love for her child the motivating force behind her fierce drive to rescue another mother from the prospect of life in prison? Was Luz a naive teenager acting in self-defense and in defense of her child, or was she a schemer with a steel-trap mind who planned a complicated campaign to rid herself of a now unwanted spouse?
Watching Abby and Luz act out this drama in the pages of the novel kept most of us glued to the book. The plot twists left us with more questions. Could Luz have been able physically to stab a much larger man through the heart? Ms. Bazelton seemed to offer a potential alternative. What role did Mr. Estrada play in Luz’s plan, if there was one? Can you adopt an adult? Wasn’t it a delicious irony that a new mother was defending another new mother? How is it that an entire cast of characters is composed of dysfunctional human beings with whom we cannot empathize, but we are still highly entertained by and engaged with the finished product?
If you judge a book by how much discussion it promotes, A Good Mother was a successful book. Zion’s readers discussed it for over an hour and were still talking about it when walking out the door. Some of us didn’t feel either of the lead characters were good mothers (it is like defining good art – you know it when you see it, but you can’t say why you think it is good), but most of us felt Ms. Bazelton was a very good author! We had seven readers give it 1 thumb up, five were neutral, and one gave a thumb down. Next month, we read Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah. Happy reading!