The Books: “Birds of America” – ‘Terrific Mother’ (Lorrie Moore)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

Birds of America: Stories, by Lorrie Moore. Excerpt from the story ‘Terrific Mother’ – the last story in the collection.

‘Terrific Mother’ opens with a scene of such horror that it is hard to believe the rest of the story is (at times) so HILARIOUS. Lorrie Moore has just the perfect touch here. We must somehow survive events … or no, we don’t HAVE to, we can always commit suicide … and Adrienne, the main character, does not go the suicide route. But she is forever changed. She is beyond the pale. She is filled with a sense of wrongness, and persecution … as though everyone knows what she did. And she has no right to expect happiness anymore, she has no right to look for a good life and satisfaction. She should be on the rack forever. At a garden party, a friend of hers asks her to hold her baby. Adrienne is 35, and single … and has started to feel nervous and weird around babies, because she doesn’t have one, and she doesn’t think she will ever have one. Moore has a sharp pen, I tell ya – listen to this:

She had entered a puritanical decade, a demographic moment – whatever it was – when the best compliment you could get was, “You would make a terrific mother.” The wolf whistle of the nineties.

This could not be more accurate. I’ve lived it. It’s right on. Adrienne, in a moment of awkwardness while holding the baby, twists her ankle, loses her balance and drops the baby – whose head cracks open on the pavement. The baby eventually dies. And Adrienne cracks up, too. She will never forgive herself. Life, though, has moved on, with or without Adrienne. Again, the opening of the story is so horrifying that you almost want to put it down. I can’t read any more! Adrienne shuts down, almost completely. Yet somehow, after a bunch of time, she meets (and eventually marries) a man named Martin – who knows what happened, and forgives her. But Adrienne knows she can’t be forgiven. She does not accept forgiveness. Martin is a good man (I love him) – and he treats Adrienne with a rough honesty that she can hardly bear. She is not “fit” for normal life, after what she did. But Martin says stuff to her like, “I’m going to marry you. I’m going to marry you until you puke.” He loves her. She is far far away, though. I can’t even say that Adrienne is ‘doing her best’ because she really isn’t. A huge part of her is deeply in hiding, cringing in the shadows of her unconscious, living that awful moment over and over and over and over … It is always with her. Martin sometimes forgets that.

The two of them go to a conference in the Alps – for scholars, artists, etc. You can go, and you have your own cabin – and you also have your own workspace – to paint, or write your book, or work on your PhD or whatever. People from all over the world are in attendance. And you can bring your spouse. Martin is the one going to the conference – and Adrienne goes as “the spouse” -which becomes a joke later. It’s almost like “the spouses” are second-class citizens in such a heady atmosphere … people will look across the room at a woman and murmur, “She must be one of the spouses.” Adrienne was a painter once. So she tries to work. Martin is consumed with his own work, and not really super-aware of what is going on with his wife. He has other things on his mind. This is all exacerbated by the fact (and it is used to SUCH comedic perfection) that every night at the communal dinner – the seating arrangment is different … you are assigned seats, and every night you sit somewhere different, with different people on either side … so Adrienne’s various conversations with people at dinner are sprinkled throughout the story -and they are laugh out loud funny. Adrienne is not even trying to bond with these people. And no matter what she says to them, they reply in some bizarre way. And when she tries to assert herself, they will say, “You’re one of the spouses, aren’t you?”

Adrienne eventually goes into the nearby town and starts to get massages from a masseuse everyone recommends. Now it’s not that “healing” begins for her … you just know she’s beyond considering that … but somehow a space opens up inside her. Almost against her will. A space where she can actually live with what she did. I don’t know how to write about it … you just have to experience it in the story. Adrienne expects very little from life. Yet she has managed to snag this terrific guy, Martin – who is patient with her weirdness, loves her in spite of herself, and also leaves her alone when necessary. The masseuse is a major element of the story, and Adrienne at times feels like she is having an affair … and when Martin goes to see the masseuse one day (secretly, he doesn’t tell Adrienne – but when he returns she can smell the massage oil) – Adrienne feels almost jealous. LIke she is being cheated on.

I am not sure how Lorrie Moore has pulled this off – it’s a hat-trick, this story … but she does. It’s my favorite in the collection.

It is not about something simplistic, like Adrienne being redeemed, or getting pregnant herself, or “healing”, or forgiving herself. It’s about her trying to get through this conference without biting someone’s head off … and by the end, we realize that the whole thing is really about Martin. Like – what’s been going on with HIM through all of this?

And then there are hilarious moments like this one, Adrienne trying to make conversation with a new seatmate at dinner:

When she asked him how he liked it here so far, she received a fairly brief history of the Ottoman Empire.

Now come on. That’s funny.

Here’s an excerpt:

EXCERPT FROM Birds of America: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries), by Lorrie Moore. Excerpt from the story ‘Terrific Mother’

They were met at Malpensa by a driver who spoke little English but who held up a sign that said VILLA HIRSCHBORN, and when Adrienne and Martin approached him, he nodded and said, “Hello, buongiorno. Signor Porter?” The drive to the villa took two hours, uphill and down, through the countryside and several small villages, but it wasn’t until the driver pulled up to the precipitous hill he called “La Madre Vertiginoso,” and the villa’s iron gates somehow opened automatically, then closed behind them, it wasn’t until then, winding up the drive past the spectacular gardens and the sunny vineyard and the terraces of stucco outbuildings, that it occurred to Adrienne that Martin being invited here was a great honor. He had won this thing, and he got to live her for a month.

“Does this feel like a honeymoon?” she asked him.

“A what? Oh, a honeymoon. Yes.” He turned and patted her thigh indifferently.

He was jet-lagged. That was it. She smoothed her skirt, which was wrinkled and damp. “Yes, I can see us growing old together,” she said, squeezing his hand. “In the next few weeks, in fact.” If she ever got married again, she would do it right: the awkward ceremony, the embarrassing relatives, the cumbersome, ecologically unsound gifts. She and Martin had simply gone to city hall, and then asked their family and friends not to send presents but to donate money to Greenpeace. Now, however, as they slowed before the squashed-nosed stone lions at the entrance of the villa, its perfect border of forget-me-nots and yews, its sparkling glass door, Adrienne gasped. Whales, she thought quickly. Whales got my crystal.

The upstairs “Principessa” room, which they were ushered into by a graceful bilingual butler named Carlo, was elegant and huge – a piano, a large bed, dressers stenciled with festooning fruits. There was maid service twice a day, said Carlo. There were sugar wafers, towels, mineral water, and mints. There was dinner at eight, breakfast until nine. When Carlo bowed and departed, Martin kicked off his shoes and sank into the ancient tapestried chaise. “I’ve heard these ‘fake’ Quattrocentro paintings on the wall are fake for tax purposes only,” he whispered. “If you know what I mean.”

“Really,” said Adrienne. She felt like one of the workers taking over the Winter Palace. Her own voice sounded booming. “You know, Mussolini was captured around here. Think about it.”

Martin looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“That he was around here. That they captured him. I don’t know. I was reading the little book on it. Leave me alone.” She flopped down on the bed. Martin was changing already. He’d been better when they were just dating, with the pepper cheese. She let her face fall deep into the pillow, her mouth hanging open like a dog’s, and then she slept until six, dreaming that a baby was in her arms but that it turned into a stack of plates, which she had to juggle, tossing them into the air.

A loud sound awoke her – a falling suitcase. Everyone had to dress for dinner, and Martin was yanking things out, groaning his way into a jacket and tie. Adrienne got up, bathed, and put on panty hose, which, because it had been months since she had done so, twisted around her leg like the stripe on a barber pole.

“You’re walking as if you’d torn a ligament,” said Martin, locking the door to their room as they were leaving.

Adrienne pulled at the knees of the hose but couldn’t make them work. “Tell me you like my skirt, Martin, or I’m going to have to go back in and never come out again.”

“I like your skirt. It’s great. You’re great. I’m great,” he said, like a conjugation. He took her arm and they limped their way down the curved staircase – Was it sweeping? Yes! It was sweeping! – to the dining room, where Carlo ushered them in to find their places at the table. The seating arrangement at the tables would change nightly, Carlo said in a clipped Italian accent, “to assist the cross-pollination of ideas.”

“Excuse me?” said Adrienne.

There were about thirty-five people, all of them middle-aged, with the academic’s strange mixed expression of merriment and weariness. “A cross between flirtation and a fender bender,” Martin had described it once. Adrienne’s palce was at the opposite side of the room from him, between a historian writing a book on a monk named Jaocim de Flore and a musicologist who had devoted his life to a quest for “the earnest andante.” Everyone sat in the elaborate wooden chairs, the backs of which were carved with gargoylish heads that poked up from behind either shoulder of the sitter, like a warning.

“De Flore,” said Adrienne, at a loss, turning from her carpaccio to the monk man. “Doesn’t that mean ‘of the flower’?” She had recently learned that disaster meant “bad star”, and she was looking for an opportunity to brandish and bronze this tidbit in conversation.

The monk man looked at her. “Are you one of the spouses?”

“Yes,” she said. She looked down, then back up. “But then, so is my husband.”

“You’re not a screenwriter, are you?”

“No,” she said. “I’m a painter. Actually, more of a printmaker. Actually, more of a – right now I’m in transition.”

He nodded and dug back into his food. “I’m always afraid they’re going to start letting screenwriters in here.”

There was an arugula salad, and osso buco for the main course. She turned to the musicologist. “So you usually find them insincere? The andantes?” She looked quickly out over the other heads to give Martin a fake and girlish wave.

“It’s the use of minor seventh,” muttered the musicologist. “So fraudulent and replete.”

“If the food wasn’t so good, I’d leave now,” she said to Martin. They were lying in bed, in their carpeted skating rink of a room. It could e weeks, she knew, before they’d have sex here. ” ‘So fraudulent and replete,’“, she said in a high nasal voice, the likes of which Martin had heard only once before, in a departmental meeting chaired by an embittered interim chair who did imitations of colleagues not in the room. “Can you even use the word replete like that?”

“As soon as you get settled in your studio, you’ll feel better,” said Martin, beginning to fade. He groped under the covers to find her hand and clasp it.

“I want a divorce,” whispered Adrienne.

“I’m not giving you one,” he said, bringing her hand up to his chest and placing it there, like a medallion, like a necklace of sleep, and then he began softly to snore, the quietest of radiators.

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7 Responses to The Books: “Birds of America” – ‘Terrific Mother’ (Lorrie Moore)

  1. tracey says:

    /”De Flore,” said Adrienne, at a loss, turning from her carpaccio to the monk man. “Doesn’t that mean ‘of the flower’?” She had recently learned that disaster meant “bad star”, and she was looking for an opportunity to brandish and bronze this tidbit in conversation.

    The monk man looked at her. “Are you one of the spouses?”/

    I can’t stop laughing at this little exchange.

  2. red says:

    hahahahaha I know!! It’s like “the spouses” are second-class citizens. No matter what Adrienne says, even when she tries to sound smart, will telegraph: “I am one of the spouses!”

  3. tracey says:

    That whole line starting with “The monk man” just drips with contempt. Like it’s one huge social “BOO-bye.” I feel I can actually picture the WAY he looks at her. I just keep reading it and howling.

    Okay. I need to get this book. You’ve convinced me. I will click on your thingamabob there and order it.

  4. Diana says:

    “Yes, I can see us growing old together,” she said, squeezing his hand. “In the next few weeks, in fact.”

    Tons of lines like that. Such an interesting juxtaposition, how Adrienne can be so tragic and also so funny. It’s almost like she just doesn’t give a shit about anything or anyone anymore so she just says whatever.

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  6. Paul C. says:

    I’ve read all of Lorrie Moore and she always kind of baffles me—how she can mix the heartbreaking with the pithy. It’s really quite amazing.

    She writes about women breaking, falling apart, but trying to keep sane with wit and humor. I’m a big fan and am waiting for her next book.

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