Mental illness. It would appear that the mental illness trope never seems to wear out. Is it because we who are able are fascinated by those with a mental disability? Or do we see more than a few of our own thoughts and mis/perceptions in the bringing to light the depths of madness the human brain is capable of? Whatever the reason, I never tire of seeing how an author — using fiction — unravels the tangled up thoughts of a mentally ill person. Anita Kushwaha did an admirable job of it in her debut novel Side by Side, in which a family member’s suicide starts the family’s decline into depression and guilt. Laura Best likewise succeeds in the painting of the psychological decline of Elizabeth in Good Mothers Don’t*. Elizabeth is a married woman with two children whose mental illness begins to manifest itself shortly after her marriage to Cliff MacKay. However, there are “soft” areas where the book leaves gaps as it jumps back and forth, not only in time (from the 1960s to 1975) but also in the narration by several of its characters.Before the reader gets to the beginning of Good Mothers Don’t, the author shares a thought or two in a “Dear Reader” note:
“…an image came to me that I couldn’t shake. It was of a young girl and boy standing by an upstairs window in a house watching walk across a hayfield. […] I sensed this woman was their mother and that she was leaving her children behind. The image haunted me. I just had to tell this young girl’s story. Why was her mother leaving? […] Was there ever a good reason to do that?”
The young girl whose story Ms. Best proceeds to tell is that of Jewel MacKay, Elizabeth’s daughter. For the bulk of the novel, the chapters jump back and forth between Elizabeth and Jewel with occasional inputs from Joan (Elizabeth’s holier-than-thou sister-in-law) and Jacob, Jewel’s brother. Oddly, we never hear from the long-suffering Cliff regarding his observations on his relationship with Elizabeth. We know little of their courtship and early days of their pre-child marriage. The story jumps in shortly before Elizabeth’s abandoning of her family and after she has already had treatment at “Roseland” a sanitorium, I presume. Her medication she refuses to take or fakes taking it. Then suddenly, she leaves her family behind and walks away from the house through a field, as Jewel watches through a window. She is eventually found by Cliff and taken to Dartmouth and admitted for psychiatric hospitalization.
***Spoiler Alert!*** You may want to skip the next paragraph.
The next fifteen years of Elizabeth’s life are spent moving from Dartmouth to Divinity to Harmony House, a type of group home designed to help the mentally ill (the more stable ones) prepare for life outside an institution. In all this time, her family has not visited nor sought out her whereabouts. Difficult to fathom. To Cliff, his Elizabeth is dead. Jewel and Jacob are raised by their father, assisted by Joan who in time, reveals more of Elizabeth’s story to Jewel. And what of Jewel’s thoughts after all this time without her mother? I found that these gaps detracted from an otherwise excellent story. It is only when Elizabeth and another Harmony House resident go AWOL that Jacob sees a TV news alert for a missing woman named Elizabeth MacKay (he was only five when she walked away) and suspects it is his mother.
To Ms. Best’s credit (and this is her first “adult” novel, all her others are in the Young Adult genre) she does an admirable job of describing Elizabeth’s paranoid thinking, her reactions to certain events in her life, and her eventual breakdown and her day-to-day life in Harmony House (her time in Dartmouth was spent getting electroshock therapy, which wiped out much of her memory of her life). Much of Good Mother’s Don’t, in fact, reads like a young adult novel, and would certainly be suitable for a mature young teen. Author Carol Bruneau is quoted on the cover as saying “I couldn’t put it down.” I won’t disagree with that statement, as I too found myself engrossed in Elizabeth’s story, and it was only after finishing it that I looked back and saw what was missing. The reader is left with story gaps, too.
*This review of Good Mothers Don’t is based on an Advance Reading Copy. The book is slated to be released on April 30th, 2020.
Good Mothers Don’t by Laura Best
Vagrant Press (a Nimbus Publishing imprint)
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