A captivating ode to mother-daughter love that began with a one-night stand
There is a very clear path for the likes of Laura, the co-protagonist of Kate Greathead’s debut novel, Laura & Emma (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Women in her Upper East Side New York set are raised by devoted if flawed nannies; attend country club events on weekends with their parents; go to one of the few private schools that “matter” in the city, followed by college—preferably Barnard—then marriage to another suitably blue-blooded man, motherhood, and a life of charity work while directing a new generation of nannies to raise their children. And although Laura has no real interest in challenging the WASP status quo—she is reluctant to talk about sex or money, even with a highly respected psychoanalyst—she finds herself unmarried at age 30, a rarity among her peers in 1980. Stranger still is when, after an almost surreal one-night stand (another subject Laura keeps close to the vest), she decides to continue with the resulting pregnancy and raise her child as a Solo Mom by choice. This is something simply not done by women like her.
And so begins for Laura and her daughter, Emma, a life of adventure—sort of. What is wonderful about Greathead’s tender mother-daughter tale is how much emotional mileage she gets out of the smaller, quietly observed moments in life. Set against the backdrop of upper-crust New York City in the 1980s, their lives brush gently against the changing culture (a beloved pediatrician, it is revealed, contracts AIDS from his gay partner), but nothing truly radical or dramatic happens to these protagonists. (If you are looking for a literary analogy to Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, look elsewhere.) After her incredibly strange one-night stand (a deftly handled sequence, perhaps one of the best Solo Mom–origin stories in American literature), Laura makes up a lie about a sperm bank. This lie begets another—the donor was Swedish—a detail that thrills Laura’s WASPy mother, Bibs, my favorite character in the book. The family dynamics in this high-achieving, emotionally restrained clan are explored with deep sensitivity and honesty. Greathead has wrought a tale of subtle beauty more closely akin to the proud and obedient midwesterners of Evan S. Connell’s fiction.
In good conscience, I have to supply this trigger warning: there are moments in Laura & Emma that will have any Solo Mom in the 99% cringing with rage and envy. Laura and Emma’s life reads as a kind of magical realism for those of us who, you know, have had to work for a living. They live in the aristocracy of New York brownstones, where parents and grandparents have an abundance of wealth that allows them to continue to financially support their children well into adulthood; even Laura’s successful adult stockbroker brother gets a generous, utterly unnecessary allowance from their parents. Theirs is a magical kingdom where the right last name can ensure rock-solid job security, not to mention a maternity-leave package that rivals the most progressive European nations.
But don’t let envy stop you from reading this lovely ode to mother-daughter love. Laura and Emma are distinct characters whose idiosyncrasies are endearing, their interiors so well explored it is impossible for even for the most cynical Marxist Solo Moms among us not to have some affection for them. As Tolstoy said in his epic family drama, Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike.” Laura and Emma’s family is not unhappy, but they are searching, like the rest of us, for something enduring in this world of shifting values. When Emma grows up, forms her own identity, and begins to take flight into adulthood, Laura must grapple with the existential loneliness that surrounded her at the beginning of the book, before motherhood was even a possibility. It is in these moments where Greathead’s power as a prose stylist and storyteller converge to create scenes that will linger with you for days after reading them. As a Solo Mom to a son, I have always considered myself lucky; reading Laura & Emma, I found myself for the first time longing for a daughter. The characters in this book live in a world few of us will relate to, but in Greathead’s hands, their humanity is deeply felt.
Have you read a wonderful book featuring a Solo Mom? We’d love to hear about it!
Domenica Ruta, ESME’s Showcase Writing Curator, is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir With or Without You. She’s a Solo Mom who lives in New York City with her son and her dog. You can follow her on Twitter at@DomenicaMary.
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