AMY SOHN author of MOTHERLAND
It’s just before Labor Day and five mothers and fathers in Cape Cod, Park Slope, and Greenwich Village find themselves adrift professionally and personally. Rebecca Rose, whose husband has been acting aloof, is tempted by the attentions of a former celebrity flame; Marco Goldstein, saddled with two kids as his husband Todd goes on a business trip, turns to sex with strangers for comfort; Danny Gottlieb, a screenwriter on the cusp of a big break, leaves his wife and children to pitch a film (and meet young women) in Los Angeles; fallen sanctimommy Karen Bryan Shapiro, devastated by her husband’s infidelity and abandonment, attempts a fresh start with a hot single dad; and former A-List movie star Melora Leigh plots a star turn on Broadway to revive her Hollywood career. As their stories intersect in surprising ways and their deceptions spiral out of control, they begin to question their beliefs about family, happiness, and themselves. Equal parts moving and richly entertaining, Motherland confirms Amy Sohn as one of our most insightful commentators on marriage and parenting in America today. (August 2012) [READ MORE]
“His hair’s getting really red,” Joanne Shanahan told Rebecca at Dyer Pond, leaning over in her beach chair to inspect the boy’s pate.
“It’s just the light,” Rebecca answered quickly, adjusting Benny’s sun hat. He was napping on a Marimekko blanket next to her.
“No, it really looks red,” Joanne said. “I never noticed it before.” A former ballerina, Joanne was tall and athletic and had an irritating tendency to stand in fifth position.
“It’ll probably wind up brown,” Rebecca said. “I was blond at this age. I had the most gorgeous hair of my life when I was too young to capitalize on it. I had Bergdorf hair.”
Joanne nodded, but Rebecca worried that she would go on. It was a bad sign that Joanne had noticed Benny’s hair, because of all the mothers in the Crowd she had the least interest in other people’s children. Appearance change in kids—along with such topics as parental resemblance and character differences between siblings—was the conversational province of Other moms, not the Crowd mothers, who prided themselves on their lack of interest in motherhood. The Crowd—the group of Park Slope Parents whom Rebecca and Theo socialized with in Wellfleet—came to Dyer Pond every morning because it was hidden and only those in the know were aware of it. You had to park your car in the woods at a possibly illegal spot and walk down a long path until you arrived at a tiny embankment. Dyer Pond’s visitors tended to be locals, older kids, and even the occasional (anomalous in Wellfleet) childless couple. Locals were preferable to the Park Slopers the Crowd bumped into daily at the more popular Long Pond, the ocean beaches, and Hatch’s Produce in town.
Though all members of the Crowd lived in Park Slope, they didn’t like running into other Slopers on vacation and didn’t like other Slopers in general. They had moved to Park Slope from the Upper West Side and the East Village with resignation, for the children’s benefit, and mocked their parent neighbors as if they were cut from different cloth. The Crowd vacationed in Wellfleet to get out of Park Slope but also to be with one another, and they didn’t like anyone else to get in the way of that.
Andy Shanahan and Danny Gottlieb—called Gottlieb by everyone, including his own wife—were the founding members of the Crowd. Friends for twenty years, they had been roommates at Princeton and had a series of elaborate private jokes dating back half their lives. Though Joanne Shanahan and CC Gottlieb were not as overtly funny as their husbands, through osmosis and a desire to link themselves the way their husbands were linked, over the decade they had known each other they had cultivated their own bantering style, one that included jibes about neurotic mothers, an avowed if partially faked hostility toward their children, and much talk of their heavy wine drinking.
Rebecca had met CC a year and a half before, when Rebecca was extremely pregnant with Benny. CC was on the bench in front of Connecticut Muffin at the post–P.S. 321 drop-off. This was where the mothers went to gossip, gorge on bagels under the guise of feeding them to their babies, and once in a while read the newspaper. CC’s then-infant, Harry, was in her lap, and Rebecca overheard her tell a friend, “Now that the other one’s in kindergarten and I only have Harry, it’s like being on medication.” Rebecca had smiled, and caught CC’s eye.
Another day when CC was without her friends, Rebecca noticed a man who disgustingly let his dog sit on one of the shop’s outdoor benches. After the man left, Rebecca said to CC, “Some people have no consideration,” and they started to chat.
The friendship came quickly and easily, and soon they began to socialize with the children. The Korean-American CC had taken Gottlieb as her last name because her maiden name was Ho and she had been ridiculed for it in high school. Only a last name like Ho could make Gottlieb seem an improvement. CC was a stay-at-home mom but more sarcastic than most, which was why Rebecca liked her. She joked about the junk food she fed her sons, called herself a housewife, and said things like “You know you need to go back to work when you get introduced at parties as ‘a witty Facebooker.’” After CC told Rebecca that the Gottliebs went to Wellfleet every summer, Rebecca decided they would go, and the two families had bonded. This was their second summer vacationing together, and though Theo and Rebecca were not quite full Crowd members, she felt they were definitely on the advisory board.
On this particular Tuesday in late August, CC was taking a tennis lesson at Olivers’ Red Clay Courts on Route 6. Twenty feet away from Rebecca, in the water, Theo was helping their daughter, Abbie, three and a half, float on her back. She had water wings on, but he was trying to get her confident in the water. Gottlieb’s younger son, Harry, two, was digging in the sand in front of Rebecca. Gottlieb was standing about forty feet out, with Joanne’s daughter, Francine, six, and his older son, Sam, also six, who was circling them in a SpongeBob floatie.
When did “float” become “floatie”? Sippies, floaties, onesies—the parents spoke as though they were babies themselves. Rebecca, who was thirty-six, frequently made the observations of what she felt would be an older mother, a baby boomer who had borne children in the early seventies, even though she had no idea what it had really been like. Because she found most mothers at best inane and at worst insane, she frequently felt alienated. In seven years in Park Slope, she had only one close friend—CC. There had been another when Abbie was a baby, but she moved to Tribeca after her musician husband got a job playing in the house band on a TV show.
Rebecca had a higher than average daily level of irritation but was having a particularly hard time on this vacation. Her family kept losing things: so far a pair of goggles, a trucker cap, and a beach towel. Theo shrugged and moved on, but she obsessed for days, turning over pillows in a fruitless attempt to find them, calculating the monetary loss, reprimanding Abbie for her carelessness. She felt ornery and didn’t know why.
One problem was the rental. The prior summer, she and Theo had their own rental, with three bedrooms, laundry (a luxury in Wellfleet) and a stunning view of the Wellfleet harbor. This time they were renting with the Gottliebs. She had read an article in The New York Times on modernist houses on the Cape and tracked down a five-thousand-dollar-a-week cottage on Long Pond Road designed by Robert Pander, a lesser-known Modernist architect. It had been built in 1970 in a Frank Lloyd Wright style, with horizontal planes, narrow staircases, and ample natural light. Theo, an architect, had expressed doubts about it based on the online photos, claiming it was likely to be cold due to the cinder blocks, but Rebecca and CC went crazy for it, and the men caved.
It turned out Theo had been right. It was impersonal, damp, and depressing. Sound carried easily, and Rebecca worried that the Gottliebs could hear them making love. Nor was it a child-friendly cottage; both Benny and Harry had already bumped their heads on sharp corners, and at night the place felt haunted.
She was also regretting the cost. They had opted to come for three weeks instead of two this summer, and she was worried it had been financially imprudent. Theo was an associate at his firm, but their expenses over the past year had been astronomical. Their Tibetan nanny, Sonam, had raised her rate by two dollars an hour when Benny was born, and they were now paying her almost forty thousand dollars a year. The tuition at Beansprouts, where Abbie went three days a week, was another nine thousand. And that spring Rebecca had opened her own vintage clothing store on Fourth Avenue in Gowanus. With its retro sixties jumpers and unworn Garanimals, Seed had gotten a lot of press but wasn’t yet in the black.
Because she was owner and clerk, she had shut down for the entire vacation. She had not anticipated being so agitated to be away from the store and was kicking herself for not hiring someone, even temporary, to manage it while she was gone. Her failure to delegate, she worried, would make her lose more business than she could afford to.
And now Benny’s hair was turning red, and Joanne was asking questions. Just the other day at the Wellfleet market, a woman had referred to it as auburn, and Rebecca had winced, relieved that Theo was in the wine aisle. This long, decadent vacation was beginning to feel like a mistake.
Rebecca was wearing a purple French bikini that she had bought at a boutique on Seventh Avenue. Looking down, she decided it wasn’t cut quite right and made her breasts look saggier than they were. She tightened the neck strap to create a higher profile and glanced down at the book she had checked out of the Wellfleet Public Library, Midnights by Alec Wilkinson, about a year in the Wellfleet police department during the eighties. “How is that?” Joanne said.
“Did you know a boat once came into the Wellfleet harbor with two hundred and fifty pounds of marijuana on it?” Rebecca asked. “It was called The Mischief.”
“How come stuff like that never happens in Wellfleet anymore?”
“Because people from Park Slope started coming here.” She looked out at Joanne’s husband, Andy, who was in the middle of Dyer Pond on a striped rectangular float that had a built-in beverage holder. He was sipping from a bottle of microbrew. Heavyset and pale, he was a former English teacher who had become a national celebrity after getting cast in a popular series of cell phone commercials for a company called Speed. On the ads, he played a man trying to break up with his girlfriend over the phone by repeating the phrase “I’m dumping you” in various environments, though the girlfriend was never able to hear him because of a bad connection. Within months he had become one of the most recognizable faces in Park Slope, more famous than John Turturro or Morgan Spurlock.
“How come you let him drink beer and make Gottlieb watch Francine?” Rebecca asked.
“Andy’s easier to be around when he’s happy.”
Rebecca often wondered if Andy cheated on Joanne when he went off to shoot movies and commercials in L.A. It was hard to tell. They had been together since right after Princeton, almost fifteen years. Just because someone was successful didn’t mean he cheated. CC said Andy was too whipped to cheat, but Rebecca wasn’t sure she believed it. Maybe he did, and Joanne knew and didn’t care.
Benny stirred and began to cry. Rebecca lowered the fabric of her bikini and put him to her breast in hopes that he would return to sleep. Though he had been walking since ten months, now showing some interest in the potty, she was still nursing him on demand. Her enjoyment of it had surprised her—with Abbie she’d been in a rush to stop, but she was conscious that Benny would be her last baby. That made the nursing precious.
A little boy next to Harry Gottlieb was fighting with him over a shovel. “Let him use it, Harry,” Rebecca said, grabbing the shovel and passing it to the boy. Harry screamed in protest. Joanne passed him a fish mold and showed him how to pack it with sand. This placated him temporarily.
A young woman had waded into the pond with her daughter, a little blond girl. The woman looked like a porn star, with long dirty-blond hair, glasses, a slim waist, and enormous breasts. The daughter was talking to Francine.
Porn Star Mom wore a black triangle-cut bikini, and Rebecca noticed a braided rope tattoo running down the center of her spine. The combination of the tattoo, the knockout body, and glasses made Rebecca curious. She reasoned that the woman worked as a bartender or stripper; she had the kind of body that indicated she made a living from it.
Though Gottlieb was clearly addressing the mother, he was facing the shore. Instead of looking directly at her, he would glance at her sideways, as though in denial that he was flirting. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his fingers were tucked under his biceps so that they seemed larger than they were.
Gottlieb was Rebecca’s least favorite member of the Crowd. He had a fake laugh that he employed when she said something funny, and it was different from the raucous one he used with Andy and Theo. When she or any other woman in the Crowd told a story longer than a minute, he would interject “Uh-huh” so often that it seemed he wasn’t listening at all. She felt he was sexist, one of those guys who didn’t take women seriously. Worse, he frequently up-talked. This conversational habit had become a plague—even toddlers up-talked nowadays—but in Gottlieb, it seemed to reflect snobbery. “Where did you go to school?” she had asked during one of her first dinners at their apartment.
“Princeton?” he had answered as though there were several.
“Look at that,” Rebecca said now, tapping Joanne’s arm.
“Gottlieb’s puffing out his biceps. His guns. To impress that woman.”
“Oh my God.”
“I wonder what CC would say if she were here.”
“What would she care? She knows he likes to look.”
Rebecca saw some motion in front of her in the water and turned to see what it was. Theo was racing away from Abbie, his face racked with urgency. He pulled something up in the shallow area in front of Rebecca. It was little Harry, pond water pouring out of his mouth. He had wandered in when she and Joanne were gossiping, and neither of them had noticed.
He must have gone under. His eyes were rolling back in his head, and Rebecca felt fearful for him and guilty that she hadn’t watched him more closely. Theo whacked him on the back, and Harry coughed up a large amount of pond water and then cried. It was a healthy, live cry. Gottlieb was running over in long awkward leaps, splashing Porn Star Mom’s dry bikini as he moved.
It was the daughter who approached Gottlieb first, or at least that was how he remembered it later when he tried to pinpoint the moment when everything changed. The daughter paddled over in her floatie, saying something about the SpongeBob design on Sam’s. And then the mom was striding over with her cliché sexy-librarian glasses, incredible tits, and that odd tattoo running down her back, a nerd mermaid.
Her tattoo was a rope pattern that began at the neck and ran down the spine into her bikini bottom. Gottlieb normally didn’t like tattoos on women—the Botticelli tramp stamps or the muddy black-blue hearts on the tit. But this rope looked like it had been done by a legitimate artist. The woman was petite, and though her stomach muscles looked like she’d spent time on them, her heavy, large breasts appeared to be real.
The three kids took to one another right away, and names were exchanged. The girl, Marley, was the same age as Sam and Francine, and soon they were all doing tricks, flips, and underwater tea parties. The mom—Lisa—said she hoped it wasn’t going to rain, pointing to the clouds right above them. Her voice was pleasing and soft, with a Boston accent. “It’s so depressing when it rains here,” she said. “I mean, how many times can I take her to the children’s room of the library, you know what I’m saying?”
“Oh God, I know,” he said. She smiled again. He felt self-conscious in his longboard shorts, with his naked chest, standing so close to a strange woman.
Slender and five-ten, with buck teeth and a boyish face, Gottlieb had known early on that his biggest asset with women would not be his looks. He took solace in the fact that he wasn’t man-titted or bald, like other Park Slope dads, but when he looked at his reflection, he often felt like a “before” ad, puny and concave.
He caved too much. CC worried about the boys constantly, even though she tried to pass herself off as one of those jaded, couldn’t-care-less mothers of two. Her anxiety bothered him less than her need for the boys, the way she seemed incapable of ignoring them, even when they were perfectly happy racing cars around the living room or watching Phineas and Ferb. Sometimes at the dinner table, he would recount a scene from The Office or a funny Daily Show bit, and CC would interrupt him so many times to chide the boys for slights he could not see that when he got to the punch line, she would say, “What?” and he would have to repeat it. When he did, she would cock her head, distracted, and say, “I don’t get it.”
“It’s because you weren’t listening,” he would answer. Over time he had given up on getting her attention when the kids were around. But when he called her overprotective, she said she had to be; he was too distractible.
He crossed his arms, thumbs under armpits, over his chest. His pecs weren’t so bad—definitely better than they had been a few years ago, before he started surfing. He had gotten serious about surfing only post-fatherhood, after having tried it briefly as a teenager on Long Beach Island over vacations with his parents. Gottlieb knew nothing about surfing, but had begged his mother to buy him a board so he could try. The kid in the Ship Bottom surf shop sold them a wafer of a shortboard, designed for a much more experienced surfer, even though Gottlieb said he had never done it. He’d gone out and tried to learn, but the teenaged boys in the water were obnoxious, and the board was the wrong size for his body. He wiped out over and over again, not understanding what he was doing wrong, and years later he’d looked back on the experience with such humiliation that he was reluctant to try again.
In Wellfleet a few summers before, in part to get away from CC and Sam, he’d signed up for a lesson with Sickday, one of the local shops. He’d gotten lucky and found a great and mellow teacher, a fifteen-year-old prodigy who took him out on a halfway decent longboard. He was shocked to discover that he got the hang of it quickly, his balance better than when he was a teen. He had no vanity or self-consciousness and was able to take direction. It was like the line about youth being wasted on the young.
After a few lessons, he began going out alone. He met affable old guys in the water, all on longboards, who gave him tips. He wound up buying his own board, a nine-six Walden Magic Model, later that summer and going out every day there were waves. One day at Newcomb Hollow, he caught a fast, clean chest-high left, and some of the guys hooted in support and threw him shakas. From then on, he was hooked.
Gottlieb had grown up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the only child of a nurse and a professor. They lived in a modest ranch, while his peers had fancy, modern houses. The Gottliebs weren’t poor, but Gottlieb—Danny back then—had always been conscious of the differences. He always had jobs in the mall while his friends went off to college prep programs or tennis camp, and they didn’t own a summer house down the shore, they rented.
By the bank Gottlieb could see Theo pulling Abbie around on her back. Theo was a good father and seemed genuinely taken by his kids. Some guys were like that; they came into their own when they became fathers. Even Andy, who drank copiously, had an easy rhythm with Francine, engaging in elaborate doll play. With only one child, you could enjoy being a parent. Andy and Joanne were “one and done,” as they called it. Andy had wanted no children and Joanne had wanted two, so as a compromise, they had Francine and Andy got a vasectomy.
Gottlieb had never loved fatherhood. When they found out CC was pregnant, Gottlieb had dreamed of a girl. For the first five months, until the big ultrasound, he had imagined teaching a girl to throw, putting in barrettes, giving her confidence. He wanted a daddy’s girl who would adore him and measure all other men against him. Unlike men who got all “my boy Bill” when they found out they were having a son, Gottlieb was disappointed.
Childbirth repelled him, and a few years later, when Harry came out, Gottlieb was careful to stay by CC’s head. Even now that the boys were semi-independent, he felt disconnected. (He and Andy had an ongoing riff about what the experts called the wonder years—“the plunder years,” “the torn-asunder years,” the “I wonder why we did this” years.)
Both Sam and Harry had turned out to be mama’s boys. From the beginning, their relationship with CC was physical—the nursing and rocking. Even now that Sam was six, it hadn’t changed. To watch CC with her sons was to watch a love story that didn’t include him. They draped and kissed, licked and sucked, hugged, climbed, wrapped. Often in the middle of the night, Sam got into bed, and nuzzled CC like a lover until Gottlieb was almost falling out. Sometimes he finished the night on the couch.
He was jealous of her for getting the kind of physical affection from the boys that he had dreamed he would get from a girl. They appeared more Asian than white, and when he was with them, he often felt like a stranger watching someone else’s kids. CC said they looked white, but he disagreed. He was convinced that people glanced at him oddly, not understanding what a white guy was doing with those Korean kids. On a rational level he knew this thought was ridiculous. Many Park Slope kids were half-Korean, half-Jewish—CC called them SoJews, a play on the Korean vodka Soju—but he thought it nonetheless. Sometimes he searched the boys’ faces for signs of his own physiognomy, to no avail.
Often on the way home from work, he would walk around the block once to delay the moment of opening the door, the moment when CC would throw Harry into his arms, head into the bedroom with a glass of chardonnay, and say, “For the next half hour I’m not here.” Weekends were worse than weekdays. Saturday was Mom’s Day Off, and Sunday was Let’s All Be Together: IKEA, biking in Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum, and birthday parties. He had buddies from Princeton, hedge-fund guys in Westchester or Greenwich, who golfed on Sundays. A Park Slope father could never get away with that.
At night, after the boys were in bed and CC was sleeping next to him, he would lie in the dark and wonder at his dread. He would blink in the blackness, trying to figure out how to dislodge the rock sitting on his heart. It wasn’t about money; he didn’t know what it was about. But it was there all the time, following him to the film school he ran in Gowanus, to the playground, and to date nights—a term he despised—as he sat across from CC at hand-crafted wooden tables eating locally sourced produce. His boys were strong and smart, his wife horny, hot, and funny. He wanted to be like the agent Dicky Fox in Jerry Maguire, who said, “In life I’ve failed as much as I’ve succeeded. But I love my wife, I love life, and I wish you my kind of success.” Yet as hard as he tried, he couldn’t feel that family was a kind of success.
The worst part about being a failure at thirty-nine was that Gottlieb had experienced the misleading thrill of having been highly successful at twenty-four. At Princeton he had majored in visual arts with a focus on film, and then entered the graduate film program at NYU, where he turned out to be a standout in his class. He did a feature-length film as his thesis, a romantic dramedy called The Jilt, and submitted it to Sundance. It not only got in but also won the Audience Award for best drama. The movie had a limited release and made some money, and he found a directing agent in Hollywood who was able to get him some commercial directing jobs, as well as a Texan ex-linebacker agent named Topper Case who said he should start working on a spec.
Gottlieb wrote one romantic comedy that didn’t get made but he got a rewrite job on a remake of the seventies comedy Bye Bye Braverman, about a bunch of men attending a funeral. The movie was never produced. There were half a dozen other rewrite jobs, but he was unable to sell any of his specs. Out of frustration, he shot one himself, a horror movie on hi-def, and though it was popular on the film festival circuit, no one wanted to distribute it.
When it became clear that he couldn’t support himself as a director or a screenwriter, he took a job as a film professor at a small college on Long Island. His students were a mix of talented and less talented, and the commute was exhausting. He got the idea to use his teaching skills and NYU degree to open a film school for aspiring young directors. A decade later, Brooklyn Film Academy, which he ran out of an industrial building on President Street, was netting him half a million a year. He found himself in the odd position of having created a business profitable enough to make it easy for him to stop writing screenplays.
“So where are you guys from?” Lisa the hot mom asked him as they watched their children spin on the floats.
“Brooklyn,” he said. “Our whole neighborhood comes here. What about you?”
“Outside Boston. My parents have a place here. So we come whenever we want. Marley loves it.”
He knew the name Marley would be considered corny in the Slope, where people named their kids Jones and Cassius. Rebecca was staring at him from the beach with her mean eyes. Her body was all right for a mother of two, but she would be hotter if she didn’t frown so much. He had tried to get CC to explain her appeal as a friend, but the best she could do was something about her honesty and sarcasm.
“Do you guys stay here the whole summer?” he asked Lisa.
“No, just two weeks. I don’t get a lot of time off work.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a waitress.”
Gottlieb nodded, his eyes darting down to her figure. He flashed on an image of himself ejaculating on her breasts. He masturbated daily, mainly to Internet porn, when he could find the privacy to do it. There was gobs of material on hundreds of thousands of sites—X-Videos, YouPorn, EmpFlix, Tube 8. His favorite was xHamster (“just porn, no bullshit”), where you could search under any category you wanted. Squirting, anal, flashing, funny, hairy, hand jobs, group. One night he typed “pain crying” into the search field. He saw the headline ASIAN GIRL CRYING AFTER ANAL FUCK and clicked. The girl looked young. A man barked at her. He imagined CC as a teenager, growing up in Queens, and quickly closed the screen.
His favorite kind was tittie porn. He liked all kinds of breasts. Big, small, puffy, even a little saggy. CC had a complex about her tits being small. She was wrong. She was a healthy B and he would tit-fuck her all the time if only she’d let him.
During his freshman year at Princeton, Gottlieb had been known for his constant need to masturbate. Once, Andy was talking to him in his dorm room and grabbed a towel off the dresser to wipe his face. Gottlieb called out, “That’s my come rag!” Horrified, Andy dropped the towel and bolted down the hallway to the bathrooms to wash his face. Andy told the other guys the story, and for a while they all called Gottlieb “CR.”
It was the only nickname worse than Gottlieb, which Andy had started calling him soon after they met in their freshman year at Princeton. Gottlieb hated it, the hard Germanic vowels, but the sobriquet caught on, and now it was his name, like Stiffler or McFly. Without trying and through no fault or behavior of his own, he had become one of those last-name guys.
“What do you do?” Lisa asked him.
He cleared his throat, not sure whether to give the modest or immodest version. “I’m a screenwriter.”
“Really? Wow. I’ve never met a screenwriter.”
In the past, when asked what he did, Gottlieb would have answered, “I run a film school.” It was only recently that he had begun to refer to himself as a screenwriter. That spring he became despondent, convinced that if he didn’t write a new script he never would. He joined a local writing space as a step toward Getting Serious, and he took notes for an idea he had had a long time but never pursued: a black comedy about a guy who tracks down his childhood bully to get revenge. He spent March and April working on a treatment, but when he started writing the script, the words didn’t flow, and he gave up on it.
One day he called Andy and asked if he wanted to read the treatment. Andy had been in the improv comedy group at Princeton, and had always been funnier than Gottlieb. Gottlieb didn’t like the idea of asking for help, but he was stuck, and with Andy’s career doing so well, he thought it might be useful to take him on as a partner.
Andy called the next day with his ideas. They holed up at the Shanahans’ house on President Street and reworked the outline, refining all the comedic bits, making the characters stronger, adding reversals. They had long conversations about male-bonding movies and watched The Hangover, Old School, Sideways, Step Brothers, and Tommy Boy. By the end of June, they had everything but the ending. Gottlieb wasn’t sure whether the protagonist, Mikey Slotnick, should get comeuppance. Andy said no, but Gottlieb was afraid the character would be too irredeemable by Hollywood standards if he didn’t pay a price.
One morning when Gottlieb arrived at Andy’s apartment, Andy announced that he had cracked the ending. He said they should use All About Eve as a model. Mikey Slotnick starts to experience good luck after he’s ruined the life of his ex-tormenter Dirk Thomas. Andy’s idea was this: In the last scene, Mikey gets confronted by a young guy he tormented in high school, and he realizes that he wasn’t only bullied; he was a bully, too. Gottlieb loved the ending-as-beginning idea and thought it set them up perfectly for a sequel. They rewrote the final part of the treatment and polished it and e-mailed it to Topper just before they both left for Cape Cod.
“So have you written anything that I might have seen?” Lisa asked him.
“Probably not. I wrote this indie comedy awhile ago.”
“Really? What’s it called?”
“I know all about getting jilted,” she said. “Is it something I can rent?”
“Yeah. It’s on Netflix,” he said, and then murmured, “Instant.”
There was a burst of movement by the shore. He heard a grown man’s shout, jarring among the giggles and jubilant yells from the kids. He saw Theo lifting Harry by the armpits. Oh God.
Gottlieb raced over, making huge splashes as he ran. Harry coughed up water. Theo pounded him on the back, and then Harry wailed, an assuring, loud, clear-throated wail. “What happened?” Gottlieb shouted, grabbing Harry. Joanne and Rebecca were standing, looking panicked.
“He wandered in,” Theo said with a frown. “Nobody was watching and he went under.”
“He was right in front of us,” Rebecca said, “and then he wasn’t.”
Gottlieb could feel them blaming him. There was an unwritten rule of parenting that you were responsible for your own child unless you expressly instructed someone else to watch him. He hadn’t said anything to the women about watching Harry when he went out in the deeper area with Sam and Francine, and he should have. Harry was active, more mobile than Sam had been at that age. Of course he had wandered in. He wanted to be with his daddy and big brother. It had been stupid not to keep an eye on him.
“How long was he under?” he asked Theo.
“I don’t know,” Theo said. Andy was paddling in on his float. Joanne spoke to him in low, urgent tones.
Gottlieb raced Harry onto the shore and wrapped him in a towel. His eyes seemed alert. He hugged the boy tightly, convinced that if he gave him enough attention now, it could make up for the attention he hadn’t paid before. “It’s all right,” he said, rubbing his son’s back. “It’s all right, big guy.”
“I looked at the beach, and I didn’t see him,” Theo said, “and then he was waving his arms above his head.”
The hot mom had come in with her daughter, plus Sam and Francine, and Gottlieb realized that he’d forgotten the older kids in the commotion, which only made him look more inept. “Is he okay?” Lisa asked.
“Yeah, yeah. He went under, but he’ll be all right.”
“Maybe you should take him to Outer Cape Health Services,” Rebecca said. It was an urgent-care center on Route 6, affiliated with Mass General.
“But he’s fine,” Gottlieb said. Harry was squirming out of his arms to play with a shovel. Even if they didn’t go to Health Services, he would have to tell CC. He could hear her angry tone, her lack of surprise that he had blown it with the kids.
He felt guilty for having given the hot mom so much attention. Maybe Harry had orchestrated this, seen him out there with the tattooed hottie and gone in the water to get his attention, sensing a threat to his mother. Children were cock-blockers, perpetually halting the event that had facilitated their creation.
What would he tell CC when she asked why he hadn’t noticed? If he told her he was talking to a woman, then she would wonder all sorts of things. He would never cheat on his wife, if only because he felt so certain she would know.
Can you tell us a bit about your novel?
Motherland is about five mothers and fathers in Manhattan, Cape Cod, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles whose lives become unglued one summer and fall. The book is about parenthood, marriage, and the limitations of domestic life. It’s about what happens when you look around and realize you’ve given up on yourself because you were too busy worrying about other people. In engaging with my characters I was struck by their universal need for freedom and the cost of pursuing that freedom.
The lives of your characters quickly start spiraling out of control as each struggles to find happiness in their careers and in the bedroom. How does parenthood force us to reinvent ourselves and/or redefine our expectations?
As I explored in my prior novel, Prospect Park West, parenthood has a dark side. It is thrilling, moving, and life-altering, but it is also a lot of work. My generation of parents tends to ignore our own needs in favor of our children’s, not just for the first year or two of parenthood but for much longer. This can take a toll on our marriages. Like it says in the song on “Free to Be . . . You and Me,” parents are people. Just because a woman becomes a mother, doesn’t mean she wants to stop having sex forever (though I can hear certain mothers across the nation crying out, “Yes it does!”). And just because a guy’s married, doesn’t mean he wants to feel invisible to other women. In Motherland, I explore the psychic costs of disregarding our needs.
Do you think the issues for mothers and fathers are different? How so?
In general, fathers are said to have an easier adjustment to parenthood. Their libido is said to return quickly. Some love the newfound responsibility and are inspired to work harder at their jobs. In a good marriage, it is often the father who reminds the mother that she must not neglect couplehood in favor of the children. But all fathers are different and not all have an easy time.
Gottlieb and Marco, the two dads in Motherland, are struggling with their new roles. Gottlieb is shocked to find that fatherhood hasn’t moved him the way he had hoped it might, and the way it has moved some of his peers. He’s just not that into it. He loves his wife and kids but feels like a stranger in his family, as if he is living someone else’s life.
Marco has taken to fatherhood, but he only wanted one child. His husband Todd, though, is set on having two and Marco soon re-enters the world of sleeplessness and colic that he thought he had just escaped. He feels sexually neglected by Todd and burdened by the domestic demands, which fall on his shoulders since he has the less demanding work schedule of the two. In response to the stress, he turns to drinking and seeking out strangers for sex through a gay GPS app. Neither Gottlieb nor Marco would win Father of the Year, but I’m not interested in writing novels about the guys who would.
Interestingly, the mothers in this book are all okay moms. Their issues center more on how to make money, be creatively fulfilled, transition from separation to divorce, and experience love than on how to parent their children. Perhaps this book is about fatherhood more than motherhood, despite its title.
In your writing you often alternate between very funny and very dark. Do you consider this a black comedy?
All of my novels are black comedies and my favorite writers, like Bruce Jay Friedman, are experts in the genre. I tend to be funniest when I am writing about a character who is really suffering and can’t quite seem to rebound. A writer boyfriend once advised me to “torture the heroine.” My characters tend to have downward spirals. Melora is trying to revive her acting career by doing theater and there are jokes about how desperate a person has to be before she does a straight play. Gottlieb has one of those nights in Los Angeles that starts out very very good, and soon gets very very bad, which is pretty much every single night in L.A.
Why do you like exploring sex in your books? Why do you think so few modern female novelists do so?
Sex to me is a great way to show character. It’s also a great vehicle for comedy. In Motherland, the marital sex scenes show the ridiculous aspects of having sex with the same person for ten or fifteen years. I have never approached sex scenes like a romance novelist, where the sex is hot, the men as muscled as Fabio, and the women “ravished.” In my books, the sex is awkward, ridiculous, complicated, and embarrassing. Frequently it does not end in orgasm, for one or both characters. I hope my sex scenes turn people on but my main goal is that they reveal character. A friend once said to me, “I was laughing and aroused at the same time.” I took it as a compliment.
The characters in Motherland are very much dominated by their sexuality and often act in imprudent ways because of it. I like writing women whose sex drives are as high as any man’s because I don’t think we hear from these women enough except in comedic, campy ways. And I enjoy reading about sex. I wish more women novelists addressed sex in an honest way because I don’t think a portrait of singlehood or marriage can be complete without a portrait of the characters’ sex lives.
Talk about the universal appeal of your book, despite the fact that it’s primarily set in Brooklyn. Do you think this story could take place in other parts of the country?
Whether you call it Silver Lake or Wicker Park, every major American city has a “Park Slope.” It’s a neighborhood where strollers and dogs dominate, there are a lot of coffee options, everyone knows what a doula is, and the public schools are good. Women dress in pajamas or gym clothes, or most disturbingly, some combination. “Bohemian bourgeois breeders” was how an editor of mine named these people. When I toured with Prospect Park West readers had a fun time arguing about which neighborhood in their cities was most like Park Slope.
Motherland could just as easily take place in those other neighborhoods as Park Slope. To the extent that I have had my fill of satirizing my ‘hood, in this novel I was eager to place some of the action in Motherland outside of Park Slope, which is why it takes place in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Cape Cod as well as the Slope. This is a book about people who feel confined not only by family life but the physical boundaries of their very small-seeming neighborhoods.
Three of the women of Prospect Park West, Rebecca, Karen, and Melora, reappear in Motherland. Why did you decide to revisit these characters?
At the end of Prospect Park West, Rebecca, Karen, and Melora were all at a point of transition and I wanted to revisit their lives and answer some questions that were left hanging. One of the most surprising aspects of Motherland for me was the way Melora and Karen shifted and matured. They really surprised me as they grew. The two novels are snapshots of the women at very different points in their evolution. It’s one reason I feel that the books can easily be read in reverse chronological order. You can come in at different points in their lives and be equally engaged.
Was there a specific scene in the book that was the most fun to write?
I loved Melora’s disappointing business meeting. I always feel that people find their grace or their humor when they are at their lowest. I also find the conceit of the “meeting” to be quite terrifying. Melora is humbled that she even has to take one at a point in her career in which she thought she was done.
I also enjoyed the Los Angeles night scene, where Gottlieb and his screenwriting partner hear from L.A. girls what it is like to date in Hollywood. I tried hard to make the girls smarter and spicier than the stereotype people might have of a certain kind of nubile twentysomething making a living out there. Maybe those girls will get their own spinoff book.
Is there a character in the book you most identify with? One you most dislike?
The characters I most identify with are Gottlieb and Melora. Gottlieb is less of a thinker than I am, but he is a striver and ambitious. I relate to that. He also has his own quiet spirituality that no one really knows about. As for Melora, she is an actress who knows she is smarter than her director. I was a child actress and there were moments when I felt that way, which was complicated by the fact that I was a kid. An actor shouldn’t contradict the director and a child shouldn’t contradict an adult. I understand Melora’s internal struggle and relate to her completely illogical and ill-advised sexual attraction to an older man. I’ve had a lot of those in my life.
What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
First of all, I hope they will find the book diverting and engrossing. Second, I hope it will make them appreciate the people in their lives who love them. My characters lie to and trick their loved ones out of desperation. Their partners don’t realize how alienated they have become. I think as a parent it is all too easy to “muddle through,” where every day is okay but not great. The routine that children thrive on can become crushing for the adults. Motherland is about characters who have reached a point where they can no longer muddle through. I am not encouraging women to leave their husbands and I certainly do not want to become the Ingmar Bergman of Park Slope, causing the divorce rate to spike, but I do think parents deserve to be happy and should communicate more about what they need. I also think more parents should realize that if the adults are not happy it will have a negative impact on the kids.
In her New York Press and New York magazine columns and three previous novels, New York Times bestselling author Amy Sohn has beguiled us with her ability to combine the hilarious, the satirical, and the sexy. She taps into our innermost thoughts, articulating on the page our everyday anxieties, the things we yearn to talk about yet keep to ourselves, in insightful, entertaining prose that immediately resonates.
In her new novel, Motherland, she introduces us to five mothers and fathers, each of whom is grappling with the realities and sacrifices of parenthood. Desperate to recover the pleasure they once found in their careers, marriages, and in the bedroom, we watch them try to turn things around, which results in quite a few imprudent choices. As their lives intersect in unexpected ways and their deceptions spiral out of control, each begins to question their beliefs about family, happiness, and what they want for themselves.
Motherland features Amy’s trademark “social satire, interpersonal drama and urban glamour” (The New York Times), but it is also a profoundly honest and provocative look at modern marriage. Through the escapades of her brilliantly rendered characters, we see reflections of our own relationships, and her candid insights should hit home with parents across the country. My hope is that you will find Motherland not only a diverting read, but also a benchmark upon which to spark a spirited conversation.
Simon & Schuster