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June 10, 2024

Review in Haiku: Raising Hope

By Katrina Stonoff

Disparate women
raise an orphaned baby girl,
form a family.

They say when a group of women live together, their monthly cycles synchronize, and it's supposed to be some metaphysical analogy of sisterhood, some magical synergy that turns a group of disparate individuals into a harmonious symphony that uplifts all who hear and...

Oh, who am I kidding. A group of women living together is like six tomcats thrown into a wire cage at the Humane Society. Any harmony that results is an accidental side effect of yowling.

But in the debut novel Raising Hope, by Katie Willard, the desperate (and disparate) yowling of four women forced to share a home truly does lift itself above the kennel and sing.

Three generations -- a matriarch, two middle-aged spinsters, and a young girl coming of age -- are connected by a complex web of relationships. The matriarch's middle-aged daughter was in love with the young girl's father even though she hated the other woman, who was her lover's sister and whose mother was her own mother's housekeeper, who...

Oh, never mind. Just call them a family. Because family is what they are.

Drawn together by the birth of baby Hope and the simultaneous death of Hope's mother, three women move into an uneasy house. None of them like the others; all of them adore the baby. On such unstable ground, a home is built. Now, 12 years later, they share the home, but each keeps her secret joys and pains.

I grew up with three sisters. Our father was rarely home (can you blame him?), so a household of women is familiar to me, spitting and hissing and all. But I value those relationships. I wouldn't trade a one of my sisters (not the one I always called a brat, not the one who didn't speak to me for three years, not one of them) for a brother. I honor my relationships with the women in my life, and we really do sing together (sometimes in harmony even).

This is what Willard set out to do: to pay tribute to women and womanhood, especially motherhood (and she does not limit it to biological relationships).

"As a feminist, I consciously celebrate women," she says on her website. "I love women: we are mysterious and complicated in our bodies and our souls. Men are fine (especially my husband, who is very, very fine), but I'm just not as interested in what makes them tick. I also think men have plenty of opportunities to voice who they are; my book unapologetically is not one of them."

And indeed, each woman in Willard's book gets to speak. The chapters are neither titled nor labeled, and each one is from a different point of view. But since the women are clearly defined, and their voices distinct, it is never confusing.

There are dramatic events: a mother's death in childbirth, an unwanted pregnancy, a father's abandonment. But most of these take place offstage.

The events we see are more commonplace: a wedding, a girl's first period, the thrill of being admired, spats with Mother, cleaning house, gardening.

I should be bored, but I'm not, not for a moment. These women struggle to balance parenthood with boyfriends, jobs with home life. They fight. They stop speaking to each other for days on end. And in the end, they say "I love you" in whatever language they have: a ruby brooch, chocolate frosting on a yellow cake, a dress that isn't pink or ruffled.

I took a class at Arizona State University 10 years ago called "The PostModern Novel." On the last day of class, one of my peers asked our professor to predict what the next literary movement would be like and when it might start.

His response? It's already started, he said. It will share a lack of faith in both science and religion with the Postmoderns (whom I'll call PMS, just for irony's sake). But the bleakness of the PMS will be replaced by a sweetness, an affirmation of life as it is: crazy and messy and difficult.

Oh, he added, and it will include lots of what we consider women's issues: birthing and babies, preparation of food, fashion, emotions.

I think my wise professor must have been picturing Raising Hope.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-03-06
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