The first paragraph on the book jacket of “Mother, Can You NOT?” by Kate Siegel reads, “There is nothing more wonderful than a mother’s love. There is also nothing more annoying. Who else can proudly insist that you’re perfect while simultaneously making you question every career, fashion, and relationship decision you have ever made?” This dichotomy may not be unique to Jewish mothers and daughters, but something about Jewish culture gives it great potential for humor.
Unfortunately, the potential for humor was not entirely realized in this book. Written in a combination of narrative and screenshots of text exchanges between mother and daughter, Siegel’s description of her relationship with her mom as a child seems to be one of public humiliation and lack of personal space and boundaries. Her mother (who refers to Siegel as “Spawn” throughout the book) seems to revel in making her daughter cringe by revealing personal information publicly, talking loudly about everything from menstruation to masturbation to Kegel exercises to penis sizes, all in great detail. Had this story been in the context of a genuinely loving and respectful relationship, mingling in a few of these exchanges would have been funny, even hilarious. But there were too few moments that made me feel like this was a healthy, supportive relationship. I spent more time cringing than I did laughing.
I really wanted this book to depict a relationship with an outgoing, larger-than life mama bear who wanted the best for her daughter but occasionally crossed a line, but instead I got the story of an overbearing narcissist who wanted her daughter to go to an Ivy League college, marry rich, and have a successful career for her own bragging rights, regardless of her daughter’s wishes. I couldn’t bring myself to like either of these women.
But the most frustrating part was that there were a few moments that did hit the right notes. About halfway through the book, there was a lovely scene where the college-aged daughter has just sent a male friend a long letter declaring her undying love for him. Her mother advises against sending the letter, but stops short of actually preventing her from sending it. The situation goes about as you would expect, and naturally, heartbreak ensues. But, as the author writes, “…my mother knew that letting me suffer was the only way to help me grow up: ‘Sometimes, you have to get your heart broken to find your way around the penis.’“ That is the kind of writing that would have redeemed this book. That is the balance between a genuine relationship and the humor that can come from a blunt and unfiltered approach to sexuality.
Although I found this book disappointing, Siegel displays a clever writing style, and if she can work in more depth and fewer one-liners, her future work could very well be worth reading.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. For additional information on this book, please see the Penguin Random House website.