Quote of the Week:
“Love doesn’t sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin
Title: Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber.
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Shout Her Lovely Name reads like a novel, but is Natalie Serber’s debut collection of poignant, carefully crafted stories about embattled relationships between mothers and daughters. Each protagonist’s story fits together like the pieces in a quilt; different fabrics and threads, yet skillfully interwoven to produce a creation that tugs at the heart.
The first story shares the book’s title and unfolds like a conversation with every mother who has ever battled with her daughter. In this tale of anorexia and its impact on a family, the characters are nameless, including the mother who refuses to give up on her teenaged daughter, and the latter, who tells her, with fierce eyes, “In case you’re wondering, I hate you.” The mother’s internal dialogue and recurring mantra appears like hopeful Post-it notes to every struggling, confused mother: “Remember your daughter is in there somewhere.”
Ten terrifying months later, the daughter announces, “I’m hungry.” We share the mother’s palpable joy:
“You haven’t heard those words from her for nearly a year. Grab on to them, this is a moment of potential. Look for more. Remember them. String them together.”
From across a metaphorical lake representing the great divide between them, the mother encourages her daughter “who remains listening on the other side, afraid to lose control, afraid to fail, afraid to drown” to take those final steps that will reunite them:
“Open your arms wide. Your daughter is getting nearer. Know that it is up to her. Say her lovely name. Know that it is up to her. Shout her lovely name.”
In ‘Ruby Jewel’, we first meet Ruby Hargrove as a college student who has come home for the holidays. Although she is her father’s precious gem, she “[pays] attention to differentiate herself from [him] and her mother. Paying attention would set her free”, especially from becoming like her mother, Sally, who has tolerated Teddy’s indiscretions and abuse over the years. She offers Ruby her distorted brand of wisdom, “I have learned to shift my expectations. You’ll learn that some things in life you just have to put up with.”
Ironically, it is Sally who rallies support for Ruby when she becomes pregnant, while her once-doting father is conspicuously absent. Towards the end of ‘Free to a Good Home’, Ruby “shifts [her] expectations” in a fashion far removed from her mother’s, by finally choosing to keep her daughter, Nora, instead of giving her up for adoption. Her choice means forfeiting a life with Marco, a thought that had originally terrified her, but is superseded by her fear of giving up Nora.
Serber uses a stray cat as a metaphor for the dearth of nurturing in Ruby’s relationship with Nora. Despite the latter’s specific request for a fluffy, white kitten, Ruby brings home “an emaciated, dark tabby” in a box, reasoning that “maybe all the cat required was a full bowl and consistent love.” However, Nora doesn’t understand the concept of “consistent love”, and innocently asks what it means. Ruby’s physical reactions–taking a long swallow of her drink and jiggling her shoe–reveal that the question has struck a nerve. We wonder what is going through her mind when she replies, “Someone to be there every single time he meows at the back door.”
So it is not entirely strange when Ruby is absent at a most crucial time in Nora’s experience. Ten-year-old Nora has not yet seen her period, but is prepared. Little does she know, though, that she will experience, and be unprepared for, a coming-of-age not covered in either her book on puberty, or in her Family Life classes.
Her rite-of-passage is heralded by symbols of blood: she imagines “looking down upon a never-ending line of brake lights below her, red like the blood in the diagrams from the Family Life filmstrip, like the wine spritzers her mother drank at night”; and notices her mother’s newly dyed hair — a “fierce red.” Later that night, while home alone, one of her Ruby’s students, Elena comes to the house, asking for her. Nora discovers that the girl is bleeding, and assumes that she is menstruating, unaware that Elena is haemorrhaging from a botched abortion. When Ruby arrives home with her date, Nora wails a momentous question, “Why did you leave me alone?” After the ambulance has whisked Ruby and Elena away, the stark memory of Ruby’s “new fierce red hair” and “the smell of all that blood, like buried nails, sharp and old” remains with Nora. So it is that, a decade later, when Nora is living with a much older man, we recall this first loss of innocence and can empathize when she tells Ruby, in what is the most frank and honest conversation they have ever shared, “I’ve never been young, Mom.”
While Ruby has done a poor job of being there for her daughter in ways that truly mattered, she reveals to the adult Nora what was not always visibly demonstrated:
“Look at you, so beautiful and naïve and, even if you can’t admit it, young. Lots of men are going to love you. I’ve told you that before.” She sighed. “And I love you and I hope you love me. You do, right?”
In the last story, ‘Developmental Blah Blah’, Cassie, the mother, opines that she “[is] the center of absolutely no one’s life.” She questions the meaning of her life, while planning for her husband’s surprise 50th birthday party, attending therapy, and coming to terms with the signs of burgeoning development in her two teenaged children.
Towards the end of this story, Serber brings her entire narrative full circle by mirroring both the metaphorical divide and the full-bodied emotions from the final scene between the first nameless mother and daughter:
“Her daughter caught her eye and for a moment the tightrope appeared, the two women stepping onto it, knowing everything about each other…All Cassie knew for certain was that Edith was everything.”
This knowledge, in the face of all other uncertainties, is a fitting conclusion to the tender, tumultuous stories that this consummate storyteller has written with a great understanding of the dynamics that exist between women and their lovers, and particularly, between mothers and their daughters. Daughters will rage against their mothers. Mothers will remember when their daughters were toddlers, and recall their sweet scent. Lovers will come and go. But, in the words of the young Puerto Rican mother to Ruby, while they were in the shower room on the maternity ward:
“Una hija will never leave you. Girls stick together.”