In her new collection, Mary Rechner dramatizes what it means to these complicated women—mostly mothers—to feel the sand of their identities slipping underfoot, as their primary role becomes helping others develop while they’re still busy doing the same. The nine stories have a distinct ring of truth and a narrow range of experience that feels personal, closely observed. A child’s bare foot isn’t just small, instead “her heels were so close to her toes.” With no frills, no gimmicks, just a gimlet eye and quicksilver prose, Rechner defamiliarizes the mundane and makes it marvelous.
In “Pattern,” Silvia is feeling the sting of deflated hopes—a common theme. The mother of triplets is sewing a dress for her anniversary, wanting “to make something that didn’t get eaten,” and because she used to sew in high school, imagining a glamorous future in her own dresses. Annie, the exhausted mother from next door, lies on the kitchen floor, smoking, doing Pilates, and—at a key point that Rechner almost breezes past—admits she has been “thinking about doing it again,” meaning killing herself. This is a story about how being a mother cuts you into pieces that don’t quite fit together, how a friend can remind you of the girl you were, even bring her back for a spell, and how life with children can be a revelation as well as a chore. It’s utterly realistic, yet a surprising turn near the end feels magical, as the best moments with children (and in fiction) do.
Many of Rechner’s characters are struggling artists: an introverted spoken-word poet reading at a strip club, an actress whose boyfriend died in combat in the Middle East, and a painter using precious child-care hours to see an insulting dentist, while thinking about how annoying it is to potty-train her son. She contemplates giving up on painting and doing a book about poop, since “no one seemed to understand or want her paintings anyway. People love children’s books, and they love poop.”
If so, Rechner is in luck, as her stories can be unapologetically scatological. The hilarious short-short “Four” chronicles the travails of toilet training from the child’s perspective. “Your mom makes you wipe now. All by yourself. No help. She says it’s enough already.” Beneath the silliness is something profound. This toddler can’t modulate his feelings, let alone express them; he is equally desperate for independence and afraid of losing the closeness shared with his mother. Rechner lets pathos and humor rub elbows, whiplashing between comedy and melancholy, the result moving and true.
I should confess that I happened to be potty training my son as I read this. Having only perused one parenting manual that I was too lazy to finish, I laughed wickedly when Frances, the accidentally pregnant bookseller in “Special Ability,” made fun of the smug stroller-pushers who buy only books on mothering. “Of course this happened: historians reading history, doctors reading medical reports; but since when was mothering a profession? But perhaps working in a bookstore wasn’t a profession either.” Frances may have made some bad choices, as her therapy group points out, but she’s also wonderfully perceptive and able to laugh at herself. These complicated women may not have “life lessons” to impart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have wisdom to share, even if it’s just the consolation of their honesty and their ability to maintain humor in the face of all that tarnished expectation.