In writing programs and publications, everyone talks about first lines. They're important. Attract the reader with a stellar first sentence. Give them a solid few pages and you've got them hooked. Gina Sorell and her publisher clearly know about first lines. Not only does Mothers and Other Strangers begin with a wonderful and interesting first sentence, it's even an integral part of the book blurb: My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man's child, she accepted. I decided to repeat it and write it in bold to give the author one final promotion before I tear this book apart.
I liked the line. It showed intelligence and it piqued my interest. The paragraphs that followed in the prologue were good, too. Five pages of great writing. And then, chapter one.
With chapter one, and every page that followed, the story lost credibility. The characters and their interactions were not believable. There's the sexy ex-husband stuck in a dead-end marriage. The apartment's concierge who's always friendly, full of advice, and apparently never leaves his post. The cat who chases away burglars and eats pea soup. The owner of the vegan cafe who happens to keep non-vegan options readily available in the event a sane person with taste wanders into his restaurant. You may believe these wooden characters and you're entitled to, but I didn't. Every setting, every character, and every action was an obvious ploy to advance the plot. But the plot itself becomes a mess. While you'd expect Elsie to unravel the big secrets promised in the opener, she spends more time talking about the existence of big secrets than making efforts to solve them.
Then there are the things that really piss me off, like the disturbing sexuality of the novel. It's one thing if you're writing a psychological piece about a girl with a hyperactive and confused sex life; it's another to just throw it in haphazardly. Elsie is a messed-up girl, undoubtedly, but her actions are not explained, nor are they conducive to the plot—they were added for the sake of tension. Is it okay to include a character who believes that she asked to be raped and should remain silent out of embarrassment? Yes. Absolutely. Let's not shy away from the way some people truly think. But should we perpetuate those myths without further exploration or without the least bit of retrospection? Should we normalize such behaviors? Ugggh. Last book I read that I disliked this much was Fates and Furies, but everyone loved that one and I was clearly wrong about my disdain for that story, so I must be wrong about this well-liked story as well.
Honestly, there are some good ideas in this novel and those are probably what kept me going. Unfortunately, the implementation felt completely wrong to me. What Mothers and Other Strangers reminded me of was a screenplay for a Lifetime movie. I've enjoyed a few Lifetime movies in my years, but I recognize the overacting, the convenient story line, and the sprinkling of big issues for what it is. Mothers and Other Strangers would make a decent made-for-tv movie where such devices are expected. But if I'm to believe the recommendations on the cover of the novel, Sorell's debut fails as an “absorbing,” “stunning [2x],” “delightful,” “brilliant,” and “sensitive (???)” novel.
Oh, by the way, that first sentence is totally misleading...
. You're welcome.