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What Do Mothers Want? And Will They Know It When They Find It?

By reaching across time, the book presents a bracingly pessimistic, even bleak, vision. The mothers of the past were trapped, it says, and so are the mothers of the present. There’s no way out; in fact, it’s probable that the mothers are setting up their daughters to be trapped in their own cycles of yearning. It’s as if Walbert has revised the final stanza of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”: “Mother hands on misery to mother. It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Inevitable misery, in these stories, is mitigated by intense, transcendent love — love of children.

[ Read an excerpt from “She Was Like That.” ]

You’ll remember that Larkin’s poem ends “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself.” But Walbert’s women find their only real escape in their children, an escape that comes bundled with a certain menace. In “Paris, 1994,” a woman is on vacation with her husband, trying and not trying to get pregnant. Looking out on the Place des Vosges, she conjures in her mind’s eye a picture of the chaotic night: “There are babies there and devils, too; they are all of them hovering there waiting to descend, waiting to be asked, waiting to choose, waiting for their chance to be born.” This writing is typical of Walbert’s extraordinary ability to evoke menace and consolation simultaneously. The babies will connect the mothers to the ineffable — not just upward, but also downward, to an unnamed space below, a well, a hell.

Mother love brings strange moments of what can only be called grace, moments Walbert captures with an unusual combination of restraint and rhapsody. But despite these interludes, the babies don’t save the women — because people can’t save one another, but also because although babies start out as babies (an answer!) they grow into adults (a problem!). In this book, adult children are a letdown: They are drug addicts or mentally unwell or highly needy or simply jerks. Just like people. (Just like mothers.)

Despite its Larkinesque fatalism, the book’s elegant, subtle, almost counterintuitive finishing note suggests that mothers are perhaps luckier than others because at least they/we sometimes experience a temporary easing of their/our yearning.

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