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Review: Mothers and Lovers: too dark, too weird

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 December, 2014, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 December, 2014, 12:33pm

Mothers and Lovers: A Novel

by Maria Flook

Roundabout Press

 

Late in her fourth novel, Mothers and Lovers, Maria Flook invokes Frank O'Hara's essay "Personism". When it comes to poetry, she writes, O'Hara argued that "you just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'"

The same might be said of this book, which has the headlong quality of a writer making it up as she goes along.

At times, that's a good thing: the story of April, an English professor at Sinclair College, a third-rate institution in Providence, Rhode Island, Mothers and Lovers plays around the edges of the academic novel while remaining too dark, too weird to fit the category. At others, the characters slip the bounds of control, acting in ways we're not quite sure they would.

Flook might say this is the point - that we are unpredictable, governed by lust and instinct as much as any rational override. That's the case with 40-year-old April, who is sleeping with the college provost while not quite fending off the advances of Blaze, her 16-year-old juvenile offender neighbour, as well as those of Townsend, his sixty-something dad.

Flook is no stranger to the territory of sexual, or romantic, ambiguity. Her first novel, Family Night, involves a triangle among a woman, her stepbrother and her boyfriend, and her 1998 memoir, My Sister Life, traces the tensions of her own family, etched in stark relief after her older sibling Karen runs away from home at the age of 14. "When a loss occurs," Flook observes there, "it occurs in perpetuity; it keeps regenerating like a flowering vine."

In Mothers and Lovers, the loss belongs to April; her boyfriend, Riley, dies not long before the book begins. It also belongs to Blaze, who is a repeat offender, and his father, let go from his job at a board game manufacturer after taking part in an embezzlement scheme. Most of all it belongs to Janice, Blaze's mother, who lives with an abusive boyfriend and visits her own discomforting abuses on her son.

To explore these circling relationships, Flook rotates among her characters, writing chapters from a variety of points of view. It's effective, for everyone keeps schemes and secrets from the others; in the kaleidoscopic movement of Mothers and Lovers, we get to know them all.

Tribune News Service