Francis X. Fitzpatrick on Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters by Maya Sonenberg

While Maya Sonnenberg’s new short story collection, Bad Mothers Bad Daughters, contains many fairy tale elements such as evil queens, poisoned fruits, and the hero’s quest to portray the complicated and even Grimm (sorry) or painful relationships between mothers and daughters, the writer keeps it real by mixing in modern day themes like sexism while casting bits of absurdist humor over the pages to keep her readers enchanted.

In one of the earlier stories titled, “Pink Seascape,” while the elf king is a bit harsh in his rule, the Snow Queen is portrayed as even more stern in both appearance and in her role as ruler. I think that the author was inferring here how woman, who hold roles of leadership, are perceived differently from men: male CEOs are strong and decisive decision makers while their female counterparts are often portrayed as coldhearted bitches (Snow Queens). The imaginative young heroine in this story solves this iniquity by creating a kingdom containing only women where there would be “fewer swords, more hair pulling...more kisses, but no tongue...pudding...more books.”

While the setting of “Dark Season” is made up of castles, drawbridges, dungeons, and a prince, who is enchanted by a sorceress, here, too, the writer skillfully inserts modern day references and themes. We meet a prince, who has grown weary of “upper management seminars, war games, and constantly whining petitioners,” and who decides to seek respite by journeying to “a bar on the next island instead.” After climbing an icy mountain to reach the sorceress’castle, he falls under the spell of an older woman, but eventually loses interest. Despite some funny references to our present day obsession with youthful appearance—“Other mornings, despite the power workouts, grapefruit and kale diets, and Retin-A prescriptions, she huddled over her morning coffee, wearing faded terry cloth, hiding her soft breasts and loose skin on her neck.”—this story is really about how women are valued more for their beauty than substance and the uneven playing fields that exist between the sexes in which it is okay for older men to date younger women while older women are castigated for dating younger men.

The reader is eased back into the present in “Seventh,” a story of a young girl who lives in poverty. While magical elements appear and reinforce the fairy tale structure (a talking squirrel and a closet which breathes and taunts the little girl: “Money’s short...We can’t feed them.”), the readers’ expectations are disrupted when the main character is catapulted back into reality after she exits her haunted apartment. “When she opened the door to the street, sound hit her, and heat—yellow taxis honking, air brakes, a boom box shouting Saturday Night Fever.” In addition, images like the iconic Empire State Building and Twin Towers serve as bridges to more present day stories like “The Cathedral is a Mouth” and “The Return of the Media Five” which follow.

“The Cathedral is a Mouth” is about a young woman trying to make it as a musician in Paris while “The Return of the Media Five” concerns an ex-70s radical on the run from the law for stealing files from an FBI office and releasing them to the newspapers. While these two stories don’t seem to fit with the mother-daughter motif, they are still solid efforts which shines more light onto women’s struggle to overcome the challenges of a man powered world. The story which illustrates the latter theme most clearly is “Painting Time.” Here we are introduced to husband and wife painters who while they share similar dreams of commercial success, the wife’s ambitions are stifled by motherhood while the husband’s paintings eventually hang in a prestigious gallery. “Later, years later, when she finally has a one-person show, a much younger painter asks her, ‘Would you have traded your children for a show at the Seattle Art Museum?’” I will let readers themselves discover how the mother/painter answers this difficult question.

Gender roles are explored further and with much humor in the next story “Hunters and Gatherers,” in which a mother quotes sociological studies as she observes boys and girls in their individual play. “Apparently according to a study published recently in Current Biology, women do prefer pink, a throwback to the days when they were responsible for gathering the ripest fruit and berries, while the men were out bringing down Mastodons.” During a lull in his army play, her son remarks to her, “You know what should happen to Barbie? G.I. Joe should gun her down. He should get in the Barbie car and run her over. He should burn down the Barbie house.”  While the mother is publicly embarrassed by her son’s misogynistic declaration, she admits to herself that she does not disagree. “Privately, his mother thinks this might be a good thing to happen to Barbie, to all Barbies worldwide with their permanently tippy-toe feet and gravity-defying breasts, but she says, ‘That’s horrible. Where do you come up with these things?’”

It is in the latter stories that the author explores the conflicts foretold by the title of this fine collection. In “Disintegration,” one of the mothers is beginning to suffer the effects of dementia. “She watches shadows cross the corners of the room. Her hands remember knitting, the same pink scarf for weeks.” The very next story, “Visitation,” relates her daughter’s visit to her in a nursing home. “Mina sits down on her mother’s bed, so narrow, confined by bars, and ‘We’ll be back,’ she says—tries to say—as comfortingly as possible.” And in the last story, “Forest,” Sonnenberg uses the seasons as a metaphor to indicate the stages of our lives. Under the subhead of “Autumn,” a new mother tends to her own dying mother. “If her mother doesn’t rage, it’s easier to care for her once the nurse leaves for the day, but if she does rage, it means she is not going to die.” She then ends on a more optimistic note with perhaps the possibility of better relations between the new mother and her own daughter (and hopefully a more equitable society), which both enlightened and enchanted me. “The baby holds something in her fist. What is it? Between her fingers, light streams out.” 

Francis X. Fitzpatrick holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and is currently revising his first novel.  He has also written several screenplays for film and television.  He is a native of and resides in Philadelphia, PA.