Rebecca Stone is in labor, walking the halls of the maternity ward on doctor’s orders, when she spies a madonna and child on the bulletin board. In the photo, the princess of Wales is draped in voluminous red, a white Peter Pan collar peeking through. Her husband stands beside her on the hospital steps as she holds their newborn son, Harry, in her arms.
The mid-1980s — a long time ago, no? Yet just last month we witnessed a reenactment of that scene. The mother this time was the duchess of Cambridge, in a simple red dress with a round collar in lacy white. Her husband, looking more relaxed than his father ever did with Diana, stood close beside Kate on those same London steps, while she held Louis, their latest little one.
“That Kind of Mother,” Rumaan Alam’s absorbing, frustrating second novel, begins in 1985 in Washington, D.C., and takes us only to the end of the 1990s, but there’s an immediacy to its abundant cultural echoes. It’s a bonus, not a detraction, that some of them — like the royal one — involve events too recent to have been on Alam’s mind.
Rebecca is his central character, though it might be a stretch to call her a heroine. She’s 30 when she becomes a mother, and we’re meant to understand that she feels an almost oracular connection with Diana, the events of the princess’s life foreshadowing Rebecca’s future. A poet who’s embraced the greedy materialism of the Reagan era, she’s married to a British diplomat named Christopher, who like Prince Charles is older, emotionally detached, and in the long run a better guy than you might expect.
But the person Rebecca most depends on in her flailing new motherhood is Priscilla Johnson, a breast-feeding coach at the hospital who is so kind and capable when baby Jacob can’t nurse that Rebecca entices her away from that job and hires her as a nanny. Priscilla is black, Rebecca white, and it’s in the relationship between these two — amid the tricky intimacy of in-home child care, where boundaries get blurry and love and money both figure in — that Alam poses important questions about race, privilege, and the nature of family.
“Almost actual friendship” is the way Rebecca thinks of their dynamic, and that’s about right, at least on her side of things. Priscilla, we sense, sees it differently. This is part of what makes her a far more interesting character than Rebecca, who comes across so vaguely through so much of the book that it’s fair to wonder whether Alam has a clear picture of who she is. It’s Priscilla, though, who dies a quarter of the way through the story, leaving behind a newborn son named Andrew. When no one swoops in to care for him, Rebecca brings the baby home and, without consulting Christopher, decides they will adopt him.
Alam is good at throwing curveballs and keeping us interested, but his hand is heavy in these pages, orchestrating events in too-convenient ways. Unconvincingly, both Rebecca and Priscilla are virtually friendless, which allows him to amp up Rebecca’s feelings of isolation, and also to streamline the process of adopting Andrew.
Priscilla never told Rebecca who Andrew’s father was; even Priscilla’s grown daughter, Cheryl, too overwhelmed to take her baby brother in, says she doesn’t know. This feels like a gaping hole in the narrative — a parent brushed aside for expediency’s sake — though Alam also suggests that a black father’s objections to the adoption would be disregarded by a judge.
Alam, an adoptive father in a multiracial family, is wonderful at observing small children (he describes Andrew, “sitting up, though he was still unsteady and would sometimes topple over, in slow motion, like a tree dying of natural causes”), and there’s something charming about his almost drive-by allusions to 1980s culture. If you don’t know the bumper-sticker slogan “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” you won’t get that reference, which is fine with him.
There are times, though, when the author’s maleness is jarringly apparent, as in a scene not long after Rebecca has given birth. She is surrounded by female relatives, yet the narrator wonders: “Where were Christopher, her father, her sisters’ husbands? It didn’t matter! None of the women cared in the slightest.” Well, no, they wouldn’t. It’s hard to imagine a female author commenting on the tableau quite that way.
What Alam is best at, and most interested in, is examining the ways that families evolve, their reality so much more fraught than the images of perfection we’re meant to mimic. The instant Andrew joins Rebecca’s family, Rebecca joins Cheryl’s as well — a grafting that won’t set without difficulty. It’s a metaphor, if you like, for our nation, and whether we have any hope of ever getting along.
THAT KIND OF MOTHER
By Rumaan Alam
Ecco, 291 pp., $26.99Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.