Motherhood & Words

I read a lot of heartbreaking books. Not surprising, I guess, considering I read mostly motherhood literature and there’s a lot of heartbreak possible with the whole motherhood thing. Oh, I realize that there are funny books about motherhood out there, as well—I’ve actually been told that those are the only ones that sell—but those aren’t the books I usually read. Is it because funny means more to me if it’s tied to heartbreak? I’m not sure.

But even though I don’t mind reading the hard stuff, I’ll admit that some days I’m just craving a romantic comedy of a book. You know, something that will make me laugh without also making me cry. Something that will make me feel lighter. But I apparently don’t own any of those books. I’ve searched my shelves, and they’re not there. I could go buy some, I guess, but I’m trying not to buy new books when there are so many on my shelves that still need reading. So I stick with the heartbreaking ones.

This is how I ended up tossing Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination in my purse last week as we were heading out the door to go up north for a wedding. I was in that craving-something-light kind of mood and didn’t really want to read about a stillbirth. But this book had been on my list for a while, and then it was on my desk for another while, and then one of my brilliant students cited it as one of her recent favorites, so I knew it was time.

Well, let me tell you: I read it in three sittings. I read it in the car while Stella and Zoë napped, and then I continued to read it (with frequent interruptions) after they woke up. When we arrived at the cabin, it was raining, so I let them watch a video as I made dinner with the book propped on the counter, reading as I chopped onions. And then the next morning I let them watch another video so I could finish the book. (D was golfing.)

I can’t even apologize for my shoddy mothering because the book is that good. And it’s heartbreaking. And it’s also very funny. (No wonder it was a New York Times Notable Book in 2008.)

McCracken’s voice certainly drives this memoir; she’s funny, smart, irreverent—someone with whom I could imagine throwing back a few glass of wine (or maybe even a few bottles). But how she’s structured the book is also brilliant.

We know from the outset that her firstborn dies. We also know that she goes on to have another baby boy a year later. We have to know these things going into the story or it would be too heartbreaking (even for me). It would be, as McCracken writes, “The happiest story in the world with the saddest ending.” And I’m sorry, but you can’t do that to readers. So McCracken lays it all out there for us: Pudding’s death, Gus’ birth.

But then what is the story? Where is the narrative urgency? When you give the end away at the beginning don’t you jeopardize these things?

No, no you don’t! (This is me jumping up and down in my office, getting very excited, people.) The urgency lies in the details of both boys’ births, details that McCracken withholds until the very end of the memoir. It’s brilliant really, and sad, and hopeful. All of those things.

Who needs a romantic comedy of a novel anyway?

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Pia on July 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    ok, it is on my list now. Thanks!

    BTW, are you doing another Advanced MW this fall?

  2. Leightongirl on July 30, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    I loved this one too. Thanks for spreading the word.

  3. Elizabeth on July 30, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    I'm not sure why I'm drawn to these types of memoirs, when my own life and mothering can often verge on a horror story — but I think it's for the humor, generally black — and the incredible strength bursting through. I loved this book and read it in one sitting!

  4. Mary on July 30, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Clearly I have to get this book THIS weekend. I know what you mean, Kate, about wanting something lighter sometimes. I was searching my shelves for just such a book last week. But I think I yearn for the authenticity, and like Elizabeth the black humor, that comes in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak. And I don't think modeling obsessive reading is shoddy parenting at all! 🙂

  5. Cecilia on July 31, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Great post, Kate! A book has to be good if you're reading it while cooking (that's my big barometer test ;-)). I'll add this to my list!

  6. Mummy mania on August 1, 2010 at 4:19 am

    sounds fantastic – and I quite like books where you sort of know the ending – it's the detail of the story you can just relax and enjoy then. as I'm due in 7 weeks I might not read it until after!

  7. Andrea on August 2, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Oohh…I'm going to have to pay off my library fines so I can get this!

  8. Ines on August 2, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Oh Kate. I read this book too. And, I liked a lot too. But talk about a really sad book. Too sad, for me. I loved the title and yes, Elizabeth's writing is wonderful. (I like it when you talk about something I already read. Like being on the same page, or something)

  9. 6512 and growing on August 3, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Thank you for another book review. I was pleased to find the last book you recommended was at our small town library.

  10. Sarah on August 5, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    So glad you enjoyed it! Have you read Katherine Center's novel, Everyone is Beautiful? I loved that one, too, and it's a relatively lighter (but not too light) read about motherhood.