Long on love, short on characterization

June 09, 1993|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Contributing Writer

This new novel by Mary Morris looks at love, or the lack of it, in four women. There's the protagonist, Ivy Slovak, who has been abandoned by her mother, Jessica. There's Jessica, who with her daughter, Sam, walked out of Ivy's life 25 years ago. There's Dottie, who gave up her illegitimate daughter for adoption and who later became Ivy's stepmother. Dottie became the good mother, the one who encouraged Ivy to pursue art and to make something of herself.

And there's Mara, also a good mother. Mara, abandoned by her husband, struggles to raise two small children.

Mara is Ivy's neighbor and later her friend. The problem of the story is this: What kind of mother will Ivy become?

"The Waiting Room," Ms. Morris' previous novel, also studied relationships between women. It focused on three women waiting for the men they love. Their waiting showed them who they were, and what they were, in relationship to one another.

In "A Mother's Love," an overly long and predictable book, the protagonist waits for the man who is her lover and who is father to her child. Primarily, she waits for him to decide whether he will assume the role of father. Meanwhile, she tries to learn the role of mother. During this time, she also obsessively searches for the mother and sister who have abandoned her.

Both books attempt to walk a thin line between literature and something that would appear in a women's magazine. Both focus too heavily on women's experiences and not enough on the human experience in general.

Ivy, for example, knows herself only through the loss of her mother. The entire novel spins -- sometimes sputters -- around this fact. How, she continuously wonders, can I be a mother to my child without the example of my own mother? Will I become like my mother? she asks herself. Will I abandon my child?

A 32-year-old jewelry designer and artist living in New York, Ivy should get back to her profession after the birth of her son. Rather than worrying how she'll do this, she worries about her relationships. Not only is this tiresome, it is also improbable, since Ivy has very little money and no husband to support her.

Somehow Ivy gets through the constant interruptions to her sleep and the many small emergencies caused by the arrival of her baby. She is helped by bits of wisdom from Dottie, a kindly, if somewhat shallow, woman.

"Don't give up your child for adoption," Dottie advises. "You'll be (...(TC sorry." Dottie, who also had a child out of wedlock, knows.

But more important than Dottie is Mara. Ivy watches neighbor Mara from her window. In this story, everything of significance happens either by or through a window. Ivy does not know that Mara is also watching her, from her window. Then the expected happens; the two woman become close friends over coffee.

Ms. Morris uses Mara to symbolize the possibilities inherent in female bonding. (The author seems to use her characters, rather than to let them become themselves.) Unlike Ivy, Mara is upbeat and resourceful. She, too, has suffered loss with the untimely death of her sister. Yet Mara is able to work through this and through many other hardships.

Toward the end of the story, Ivy states the theme: "A poet once said that our lives are shaped as much by those who refuse to love us as by those who do." Readers will not disagree with this observation. They may wonder, however, why Ms. Morris belabors the point.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Mother's Love"

Author: Mary Morris

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 287 pages, $17.50.

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