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The Perfect Mother: A Novel

The Perfect Mother: A Novel - Nina Darnton Received this book through the GoodReads First Reads giveaway program

"She thought again of Emma, alone and scared in jail, and felt the already familiar ache. Being a mother is like being held hostage, she thought, with no prospect of release - even when your children are grown, probably even when they have children of their own."

The Lewis family wake up in the middle of the night to a phone call that will likely alter the course of their future. All they could ever hope to appreciate about their lives and the realization of the "All-American" family will prove to be a failed attempt at parenthood in middle-class suburbia. With all intents and purposes, they were living the dream, on the path to success with 2.7 children and a home with a white picket fence. Sure there were some hiccups along the way with possible affairs and minor run-ins with the law, but what family doesn't go through that kind of stuff. Living in Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love), stay-at-home mom aficionado Jennifer Lewis lives with her husband and corporate lawyer Mark, made complete with her most prized possessions: her eight-year-old son Eric, her sixteen-year-old daughter Lily, and her twenty-year-old daughter and social activist in training Emma. Since putting her acting career on hold, Jennifer has made it a point to raise her children in the most stimulating of environments possible. Between countless extra-curricular activities, tutors, personal freedom, unconditional love, and unwavering affection Jennifer maintains a constant presence in all of her children's lives, (unlike their father).

"Jennifer sank down on the bed and looked helplessly at Mark. Usually, she would take comfort in his presence, gain strength from their dual purpose, from his arm around her. But now? She felt alienated, criticized, hurt, but mostly alone. Sitting next to her on the bed, he did put his arm around her shoulders, his habitual gesture in times of trouble, but he did it absentmindedly, dutifully, and she sensed the difference."

The family's eldest daughter Emma is in Spain participating in a program instituted by Princeton university that sends students overseas to study for a year. After eight months, everything was going great, there had been limited conversation and correspondence, but by all accounts there were no issues with Emma until that fateful night. In a drunken, drug-fueled haze Emma calls her mother to tell her that she was being held in jail. Emma has been accused of murdering a local young man who happens to have a reputation for being non-aggressive and who comes from a family with a good standing in the community. Jennifer gets on the first flight to Seville while Mark organizes the family situation at home. When Jennifer touches down and gets the lay of the land, she realizes really early in the process that what she thought she knew about her daughter had dramatically changed. The daughter that left Philadelphia eight months ago is not the one she has heard about from investigators and townspeople, read about in the local tabloids, and saw with her own eyes in prison. Over the course of eight months, what could have happened to turn a lively, resolute, passionate, and open-minded young woman into a listless, resentful, lying, and hotheaded stranger?

"One day she needs me, another she wants to be completely independent, another time she wants to show off how much she's learned and how sophisticated she's become, and yet another, she wants to tell me how spoiled and privileged and unworthy I am. She goes from hot to cold to hot again. Sometimes I feel like she's been invaded, like in that film, The Exorcist, but not by the devil - by Paco, and the ideas he's filled her head with."

First thing that came to my mind when reading this story was how similar it was to the Amanda Knox story. Like Emma, Amanda was raised in an upper middle-class family streamlined to a life of success. A young and beautiful woman, Amanda had the world at her fingertips before she decided to leave the nest and study abroad in Italy. Her parents had their reservations due to her naivete about the real world and her sheltered upbringing. In their minds this was too big of step to make at this vital point in her life, but like most parents they granted their blessing even if the bad outweighed the good. In both cases the murders happened during a public holiday, Amanda is accused of murdering a woman in a jealous rage while Emma is accused of being an accomplice to murder even in self-defense, they are both strangers in a strange land with variances and complexities of the national legal system, and are misconstrued due to contrived and overzealous media and the propaganda machine. The two personal stories are very similar, but the differences lie in the details. The problem I had was that I couldn't shake the knowledge I had of the Knox case to better submit myself to this story. I felt somewhat cheated. If you have no prior knowledge this book will probably be more enjoyable than it was for me.

The interesting element of the book is that it is told through the eyes of the mother. Jennifer is blinded by her defenses, so much so that she can't fathom to comprehend the truth that her own flesh and blood could do such a horrendous act. She no longer has the feeling that she can diligently evaluate her children with an honest eye. The shame Jennifer feels for her children's failures is equal to the credit she gives herself for their successes. Her children have not been held responsible for anything in their lives; it's all been excuse, after excuse, after excuse. This book is emotionally suspenseful showcasing how a seemingly controlled upbringing with the most honest of intentions can unearth the dark side of parenthood. Secondarily this book deals with the complexities between national media, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and how families can be changed forever with one phone call.

"She leaned back again and looked out the window at the crowded streets, all the people moving about, living their lives, hurrying to meet someone or going home alone to empty apartments, happy or sad or angry or afraid. They were all coping with their own private crisis or celebrating their own triumphs. And though she didn't know them and could barely understand their language, she felt a kinship with them somehow, a sense that they were all part of the same human drama and that though the case might be different, her current unhappiness was something they could understand."