Reading novels reminds us that there are all kinds of mothers, some of whom would never inspire a Hallmark card.
In honor of Mother’s Day, here are capsule summaries of five novels whose main character is a mother. Some of the novels will make you wish its leading lady had been your mother. Others will make you immensely grateful for the mother you had.
Three Loves, A. J. Cronin’s 1932 bestseller, is a novel about a woman who views herself as selflessly devoted to her family. The family views her as selfishly controlling. What happens when the devoted wife and mother realizes her devotion is rejected makes for riveting reading.
The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland is novel for puzzle lovers. The novel follows four children as they attempt to carry out, against the wishes of their two mothers, marital plans made one summer afternoon under an apple tree. One of the mothers is the formidable owner of Maitlin Iron Works. The other is an equally formidable genteel widow. As to which is the better mother, there’s no contest. Readers must decide which of the two is the stronger.
The Family by Nina Fedorova (1940) is the story of a Russian emigrant family living in China in 1937. When the Japanese invade China, the mother has to decides to send the children off to what she can only hope will be a better life. Then she picks up the pieces of her life, and builds a new family in Tientsin.
Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes was not only a bestseller two years in a row, but garnered the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Its leading lady, Jane Ward, leads an unremarkable life. Always comfortably well-off, she makes a happy marriage and has three children. In the 1920s when her children are grown and have children of their own, Jane reflects on her life and wonders if she made the right choices.
The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden takes a ‘sixties look at a mother whose life is not all that different from Jane Ward’s, but who makes different choices.
The best novels from 1963’s bestseller list are not the most memorable.
The Battle of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are extraordinarily detailed pictures of rather ordinary people by fine writers. Rumer Godden and John O’Hara, respectively, make the ordinary characters of those novels assume importance for the duration of their novels.
Once the covers are closed and the book jackets are straightened, however, the fascination dissipates. The casts of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are just too ordinary to be memorable.
By contrast, John Rechy’s City of Night is memorable because its protagonist and its subject are far from mainstream. The fact that Rechy states his theme repeatedly helps, too. Rechy’s novel isn’t entertaining at all.
Between those two extremes are three good, but aging, novels with something to say and a decent story to carry the message: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West, Caravans by James A. Michener, and The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. The relevance of each of these novels has diminished with age, but they still provide good entertainment.
Sometimes, good is better than best.
Rumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is one of the few novels with a surprise ending that feels right.
Away at boarding school, the Clavering children know nothing of their parents’ divorce until it’s settled. By then, their mother has gone to Italy with her lover.
Hugh and Carrie, devastated by their mother’s desertion, set out to bring her home from the Lake Garda villa where she and Rob are honeymooning while waiting to marry.
Glad as she is to see the children, Fanny is not about to go back to London.
Rob, who isn’t glad to see the children, summons his own daughter to join them at the villa.
The only thing the three children have in common is dislike of the “other parent.”
As the children fight to restore their normal families, Rob and Fanny fight over how much parents owe to their children. Should the children always come first?
The point of view shifts frequently in the early chapters, reflecting the distress of the characters. As they become more sure of themselves, Godden steadies her perspective and picks up the pace. The story is streaking along when it slams to a close.
The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is a fight you won’t soon forget.
The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
By Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1963
1963 bestseller #10
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni