In her first, aptly titled novel, Motherlunge, Kirstin Scott crafts an unorthodox glimpse of parenthood and its discontents. Told from the trenchant perspective of aspiring mother Thea, and set partly in Montana, it studies the riddles of being an adult through the challenges and transformations of child-rearing. Winner of an Association of Writers & Writings Programs award, Motherlunge differentiates itself from the millions of books about parenthood with witty candor and a new author's edgy, rambunctious voice.
Alternating between an unnamed city and Thea's fictitious hometown of Supernal, Mont., Motherlunge is an intergenerational dramedy of convincing detail and depth. Thea arrives in the city, moves in with her spastic sister, Pavia, and gets a job as a medical copy editor. Motherhood weighs heavily on Thea, a 20-something: Every other chapter is a letter to Thea's imaginary daughter (four of which originally appeared in Pank magazine as "Advice for the Female Fetus"). The narrative drive of the novel kicks in about midway through, when Pavia discovers that she's pregnant.
Scott's portraits of her characters are rendered with such attentive detail, it's as if she's writing about people she knows in real life. Thea's New Age bipolar mother, Dorothy, who's never been mentally the same since her own childbirths, and her chain-smoking librarian father, Walter, are both depicted with a depth of autobiographical experience. Scott creates an exquisite characterization with Pavia, and the chronicle of Pavia's divorce and unintended pregnancy are highlights of the novel.
Perhaps Scott's great innovations in Motherlunge are her extraordinary turns-of-phrase. These underscore even the most mundane incidents, elevating the somewhat commonplace story with a powerful poetic tone full of idiosyncratic similes and metaphors. Sex is described as "two legs inside a mermaid costume." A dog's tongue is "folding and unfolding like an envelope flap," while Thea describes a person's innermost self as a "...corrugated shell, semi-hard and molded to your back, as ugly as expensive luggage." Pavia's cumbersome movements while pregnant have "the sad, dutiful concentration of a circus elephant climbing down off overturned barrels." At times Motherlunge soars to an almost Nabokovian expressiveness that never feels like overwriting and keeps the random events of her story from settling on anything remotely bland or typical.
And Scott's novel is often hilarious. Overflowing with blunt insights, Motherlunge is frequently laugh-out-loud, yet tempered with sorrowful undertones. Amusingly bittersweet scenes crop up throughout: Pavia disguising herself in a wig to ask her estranged husband's parents for money at an airport, Thea's silent road trip to deliver her mother back to Montana after a disastrous Christmas at Pavia's, anecdotal stories regarding babies, a huge dog named General and the insecurities of early adulthood.
Scott's writing dazzles even as it stays grounded to explore the fundamental interconnectedness of family on every level. The most emotionally affecting part of Motherlunge is near the end, when Pavia gives birth to a baby boy, freaks out like her mother before her and abandons the child to Thea's care. Thea becomes increasingly attached to the infant and to the frustrations and joys of motherhood. She ultimately decides that she and her boyfriend should have a child, but then worries about her family history of mental illness.
Motherlunge isn't so much a novel as it is an episodic chamber piece of well-honed personalities and their interpersonal dilemmas, fears and aspirations. It has the low-key hallmark of an indie comedy: quirky dialogue, neurotic introspection, canny observations.
Passionate and snarky, Motherlunge is an impressive debut and astonishingly engrossing, but feels as real as creative nonfiction. Thea's story is fiction at its most human, illustrating that what to expect when you're expecting usually takes the form of the unexpected. With Scott's book, these sentiments resonate on every page.