The Book of Mother

Scribner. Oct. 2021. 224p. ISBN 9781982108786. $27. F
DEBUT We can never really know our mothers as individuals separate from ourselves, which is Huisman’s rationale in calling this portrait of her mother Catherine’s life a work of fiction. Still, the text is profoundly autobiographical; Huisman pieces together her narrative from vivid childhood memories as well as her mother’s papers. Catherine was born into the working class in postwar France and rose to the haute bourgeoisie by exploiting wealthy men, as they also exploited her. Beautiful and charismatic, she taught ballet despite a childhood bout with polio and hid her limp through sheer will. (Catherine’s own imperious mother had run a ballet studio.) Bipolar disorder nearly destroyed Catherine as she self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, took multiple lovers and husbands, and engaged in libertine sex. Yet she (and France’s social safety net) ensured that her two daughters were well educated despite their unstable home life.
VERDICT In this touching tribute to her eccentric mother’s life and death, which also offers a wild view of swinging Paris during the 1960s and 1970s, Huisman is sardonic, furious, and sometimes humorous but always affectionate toward her mother. Her prose seems urgent, pulling the reader along, as if she’s trying to outrun her grief. Highly recommended.
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