REVIEW: The Mother Who Stayed

The Mother Who Stayed: Stories

By Laura Furman

Free Press

224 pp / $15

Laura Furman, the series editor of PEN/O. Henry and a receipt of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, presents a unique collection of short stories in The Mother Who Stayed. The book is composed of three trios, each containing a set of three linked stories. If a short story is a snapshot, Furman, utilizing this form of trios, provides a film reel, where we carefully can place together image after image, filling in the black empty spaces with our imagination.

The trio I found most intriguing and will discuss in greatest depth is the First Trio, where Furman explores the terrain of Rachel Cantor’s childhood and adolescence. In “The Eye,” Furman presents Rachel as a young girl, sick with a summer cold, at her neighborhood Fourth of July party. Feverish Rachel, instead of playing with the other children, wanders around the large backyard, listening in on the adults’ conversation. By employing an ill child protagonist, Furman employs a dual level of de-familiarization. Through Rachel’s hazy eyes, events and exchanges feel new and uncomfortable, like an old movie played in slow motion with special effects. She hears the adults discussing the future, and can only grasp this abstract sense of time as “a place — like the general store where they went on Sunday […] only no one know[s] how to get there.”

The story concludes with a storm: afterwards, while her family sleeps, Rachel ventures outside to survey the wreckage. She climbs atop a maple tree that the storm has dislocated. From this high view, Rachel can see “her oldest happiness […] and her greatest losses:” standing, she knows the past, present, future, the world. While refraining from cloying melodrama, Furman presents the capacity for personal prophecy, self-revelation.

More, as I envision this child in her nightgown that is “bordered in wet blossoms,” sitting perched atop a fallen maple tree, studying and searching the scope and potentiality of the landscape, to me, the terrain obtains a dynamic quality. From the debris, life arises. Furman, in her skillful conclusion, asserts the boundlessness of childhood.

The second story in this trio, “The Hospital Room,” focuses upon Rachel’s mother, Eva Cantor, and the consequences of her debilitating illness. Told through the multiple viewpoints of Eva Cantor, Rachel Cantor, and their wealthy friend Helen Ziegelman, this story meditates upon Rachel’s entry into adolescence, her foray in the “real world,” one which her mother is withering away from.

The final story in the trio, “The Thief” is told in first person narration from Rachel’s point of view. Obviously this introduces an intimacy with Rachel, which as readers we have not experienced in the previous stories. Like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the transition from distant omniscient narrator chronicling Rachel’s thoughts and experiences to the immediate “I” alerts us of Rachel’s individuality and new-found hegemony.

Ironically, however, this story deals with a confrontation to this hegemony and a blurring of Rachel’s individuality. That is, when hanging out with an older, wealthier, more rebellious friend, Caitlin, whom Rachel admires, Caitlin’s mother accuses Rachel of stealing a strand of pearls. “Friendship,” the insurance company investigator intones, especially the “special ones,” is a phase that can “go along with stealing.” I am not quite sure if Rachel stole the pearls, but neither is Rachel herself: she claims “I wondered, and sometimes I still do, if I did take the pearls. If so, where are they?” Yet, Furman re-affirms Rachel’s individuality in the story’s conclusion, when she walks out of the apartment building into “the rest of her life.”

Rachel’s trio functions as a study of character. By exploring the terrain of childhood and adolescence, Furman shapes and molds hills and valleys, with Rachel we climb peaks and skim depths. The format allows us to experience Rachel in momentum, evolving and shifting with time.

The second trio is concerned with a fictional literary author, Marian Foster Todd. The short stories in this collection are told from the points of view of her oldest friend, her biographer, and the woman cares for her on her deathbed. Interestingly, because we never actually hear from Marian herself, though she is at the eye of the drama, this trio behaves inversely from the first.

However, this is not to say that this trio does not provide insight into Marian. By presenting three multiple accounts of Marian Foster Todd’s life, we as readers become children peeking into the windows of a house. From one window, we can see a couch and bookshelf, from another a bookshelf and piano, and from the third, and wall with a painting. The alternating and overlapping views of Marian’s life that Furman describes, illuminate an intriguing concept: how we look to strangers. Our oldest friend? Our daughter? Our biographer — because we will all end up famous, yes? Those outside of us can only peek in and will never see the same thing or whole picture.

The final trio focuses upon the story of Dinah, a recent widow, who discovers a set of diaries belonging to a nineteenth century woman, Mary Ann Rathbun. Upon reading these diaries, Dinah is motivated to affect the life of a younger woman whose husband abuses her. Again, in this trio, Furman presents angles and aspects of a story. Like a carefully cut and polished diamond, the sides and viewpoints we are presented with leave us with a dazzling object.

This is not to say that each story could not stand staunchly on its own. Yet — the multiple entries we are allowed into each story expand the dimensionality. We are no longer only within a page, a sentence, a word — but a world.

–Bracha Goykadosh received her MA in English Literature from Brooklyn College in May and begins law school this August. She reviews for Booklist, Kirkus, the Rumpus, and Electric Literature.

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