Synopses & Reviews
A major new novel that depicts the challenges of family life with contemporary force and timeless grace, from the acclaimed author of Machine Dreams and Shelter.
Formerly free-spirited, unattached Kate enters into roles of enormous responsibility: as she takes the first steps into a new marriage complete with her own beloved infant and two lively young stepsons, she becomes caregiver to her ailing mother, the strong woman who has been her guiding star and counterpart across a divide of experience and time. Kate must, in a single year, confront profound loss alongside radiant beginnings.
Jayne Anne Phillips transforms quotidian details into a shimmering whole, giving us Kate and her family in all the complexity their world offers. Phillips’ renowned skill at portraiture combines with her equally nuanced sense of narrative in this heartstrong and delicately layered novel.
"[MotherKind] is further proof of an extraordinary ability to reflect the texture of real life....Phillips sets forth a mother-daughter relationship that is tender without ever bordering on precious." The Washington Post Book World
"This deeply felt, profoundly affecting novel, [Phillips'] best so far, exhibits a maturity of vision both keen and wistful." Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Jayne Anne Phillips was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia. She is the author of three novels, MotherKind (2000), Shelter (1994) and Machine Dreams (1984), and two collections of widely anthologized stories, Fast Lanes (1987) and Black Tickets (1979). She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Bunting Fellowship. She has been awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (1980) and an Academy Award in Literature (1997) by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, and has appeared in Granta, Harpers, DoubleTake, and The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. She is currently Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. Her new novel, Lark and Termite, is forthcoming from Knopf.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Jayne Anne Phillips's MotherKind
. We hope they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to consider this remarkable and moving novel from the acclaimed author of Shelter
and Machine Dreams
1. Shortly before she gives birth, Kate "felt magical and fierce, as though these were the qualities her son would require of her. Enormous, she was girded for battle" [p. 19]. Soon after Alexander's birth, she feels exhausted, feverish with mastitis, her emotions surging uncontrollably with the hormonal changes in her body. How does Kate's situation illustrate the new mother's parallel experience of power and vulnerability?
2. On page 106 we learn that before Kate found out about her mother's cancer, she had planned to return to Nepal and live for a while in a Buddhist monastery. How does this fit with her character? Kate refers to America as a country "descended from Puritans who did not accept darkness" [p. 5]. What does she mean? How does the Buddhist concept of "namaste" [pp. 4—5] fit with the book's exploration of the relationship between death and life?
3. Phillips has chosen to use flashbacks as discrete sections within the ongoing chronology of the novel. What is the effect of this structure? What is Phillips saying about the role of memory in daily life?
4. Thinking of the pride some women take in their diamond engagement rings, Kate thinks, "It was painful to see the things women did" [p. 19]. Does Kate's rejection of conventional values give her a useful perspective on the events now taking place in her life? How does her experience of traveling in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal affect the way she sees American culture?
5. Throughout the novel, Kate struggles with the role of stepmother to two active little boys who miss full-time access to their dad. Kate sees the freedom with which Sam and Jonah approach public spaces as a stark contrast to the way she herself was raised: "The wild boys. . . . They made it seem she and her brothers had grown up in a series of careful boxes" [p. 18]. What else does Kate learn about herself through Sam and Jonah, and how does her relationship with them change as MotherKind progresses?
6. Why is Kate so drawn to the Millennium Falcon, the toy space capsule from Star Wars [p. 77]? Judging from Kate's thoughts on pages 82 and 83, what is its symbolic meaning for her, and why does she buy it for her son? What is the link between the space capsule and the old-fashioned pram she buys at the same time?
7. Matt calls Kate "the Queen of Safety." What does he mean by this? How do Kate's efforts to keep her loved ones safe resound within the larger context of the novel's themes of life, death, and the passage of time?
8. How significant is the fact that Kate is named after her mother? Why do Kate's brothers play such a small role in the story? Is the mother-daughter bond portrayed here an unusually strong one?
9. Home means something very different for Kate than it does for her parents. For her father, home is not where you live, but where you come from. Why does Kate believe that where she came from is less relevant to her than the present she has created? Is this a generational difference, or a philosophical one? Is home something we can carry within us, rather than merely a place?
10. "Ravenous, Kate knew, this need to birth babies, to hold one's child. The fact was, birth dwarfed sex, swept sex before it. . . . For years, she'd avoided babies, which was easy, because most women she knew didn't have them. Most women thought they were looking for men, not babies. Kate thought now that they were wrong: they were all looking for babies, even those who said they didn't want children" [p. 117]. Is womankind synonymous with motherkind? Is there a "kind" of woman who is motherly, who is destined for motherhood for her own fulfillment? Are all women members of "motherkind," whether they choose to acknowledge it or not?
11. What is the significance of the near disaster that occurs when Jonah takes the boat into the water by himself? What does the episode mean in terms of Kate's ongoing effort to encourage Matt's sons to love and trust her?
12. Katherine is a rigorously independent woman. Disappointed with her marriage, she has forged a life that is free of romantic attachments. When Kate's father, Waylon, comes to visit, how does Kate's vision of her parents' marriage change? Does Katherine underestimate Waylon? What does Kate mean when she says, "My father lives in the unspoken . . . and when I'm with him I live there too" [p. 181]?
13. Jayne Anne Phillips has said, "The compelling reason for writing, the risk the writer takes in becoming the characters, has to spring from a truth the writer has transformed and deepened. Any family a writer invents is informed in some way by what the writer lived as a child, sibling, parent, or whatever. We learn about family within family. There may be very basic differences between what writers write, and what they lived, but the understanding of intimacy and loss springs directly from what we experience." How do you see this statement reflected in the story she tells in MotherKind?
14. How would you describe the ethical, or moral, assumptions behind Kate's decision to care for her mother until the end of her life? What does Kate admire most about the visiting nurses who specialize in tending the dying?
15. What is the significance of holidays, shared meals, and gatherings for Kate? What is the importance of Camille as friend and neighbor, and how are Kate and Camille similar? What are these women trying to create within the framework of domesticity?
16. Is it surprising that the relationship between Camille and Landon ends as it does? Why has Phillips chosen to include them in the story?
17. How does Phillips manage to convey the deep springs of the relationship between Katherine and Kate, and which episodes of MotherKind express this intimacy most powerfully? Why does she choose not to describe Katherine's death, and what is the effect of this choice upon the novel's ending?
18. While Kate muses on her mother's illness as both terminal and terminus, the third-person narrator states, "Words are so often maligned by their meanings; Kate conceives of words as implements of pure energy, washed, infused, shadowed or illumined by all they carry in endless combination with one another" [p. 4]. Does this belief carry over into Phillips's prose style in this novel? Kate is a poet—does her poetic impulse affect the way her story is told?
Q: What is the meaning of the title, MotherKind?
A: "MotherKind" literally refers to the name of a postpartum care agency Katherine hires to help Kate in the first week home with a newborn--a gift of help: all the things, as Katherine says, "I'd be doing myself if I were able." In a larger sense, of course, "MotherKind" is a term that refers to the human family women enter when they become mothers--a term that should be common usage. They enter a territory that is the other side of childhood and move from being someone's daughter, someone's lover, into the sudden fruition of passion and attachment that is labor, birth, and caring for an infant. First time mothers, particularly after long, difficult labors, often share Kate's sense of being "someone beyond language. She was shattered. Something new would come of her." Nurturing their babies, women reassess their mother's lives and are "re-born" themselves. In T. S. Eliot's beautiful words, "We come to the place we started, and know that place for the first time." In MotherKind, birth and death happen as concurrent transformations, and the amazing strength of relationship courses through and beyond both. MotherKind investigates the day-to-day miracle love can be and poses questions readers answer, at one time or another, in their own lives.
Q: MotherKind, you have said, draws from your own experience of being a mother and caregiver. Did you find these subjects difficult to write about?
A: Writing, always, is difficult, concentrated, challenging work--one's consciousness throws down the gauntlet, so to speak, and the writer's approach to the material begins. The process, at least for me, takes years, fitted in around the rest of life. MotherKind was both inspired and demanded of me by my own mother's passage into death, by my instruction over the course of those two years, and by the fact that I still feel--almost inside the memory of our relationship--the continual loss of her. Yet the paradox of her presence is just as strong. Love makes that paradox of absence/presence a part of identity beyond death, and that is the reality MotherKind finds its way into.
Q: Does MotherKind reflect your own idea of how family should work in contemporary society?
A: Families are all different; they reflect their own histories as well as the society in which they find themselves. Our culture is notoriously anti-family; families are highly regarded only as consumers. We live in a fast, mobile, scheduled society. When families need support, we don't always have nearby family or available friends; we no longer experience the most primal, demanding junctures in life within a community. Like Kate and Matt, we hire help or depend on social services for assistance. Yet, even then, connections between the women who surround Katherine transcend varied cultures and circumstance. They come together in the power of the event. MotherKind is the story of one family, for one year, in which someone is born and someone dies. They live in contemporary, media-saturated, present day America. They're transplanted, divorced, re-married, blending, parenting, step-parenting, single parenting, coping with happiness, guilt, yearning, healing, growing up, and growing fragile as the seasons turn around them. They're the moving particles inside that eternal circle. They sometimes forget exactly what they're doing here, and then their lives remind them.
Q: Technically, how was the writing of MotherKind different from your other novels, Machine Dreams and Shelter?
A: I wanted to write MotherKind in clear, simple, very accessible language because it deals with such intricate patterning and universal experience. Its subjects are birth and death and familial experience as it runs the gamut from the banal to the miraculous. In all my work, I see language as the means of investigation and time as the organizing principal. Sections of Machine Dreams are framed by lapses of time that float the prose. Shelter occurs in three days of real time made lapidary and circular. MotherKind occurs on two planes at once: the year within the novel is intercut with an ongoing past that becomes a kind of eternal present. Memory sometimes offers up the past as a living, dimensional, sensory presence. In that world, there is no death. Machine Dreams begins with the line, "It's strange what you don't forget"--the point being that it's not at all strange; memory is alive with meaning, and so is the attempt at art. This is not a random universe precisely because we are in it: naming it, loving and fearing it, yearning to understand it, reaching for one another within it.
Q: What would you like a reader to take away from MotherKind?
A: The sense of having lived it, and a recognition of the enduring strengths they themselves possess.