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by Amber Garza
Mira, December 2022
320 pages
ISBN: 0778386481

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lionel Shriver's breakout novel, the psychological thriller WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN explored the inner life of an adventurous woman who had never wanted to be a mother, moving back and forth between the prehistory and aftermath of her son's murderous rampage at school. More than an expatriate American's look at her country's national psychosis and its staggering, continually updated body count, WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN tried to explore what responsibility parents have for their children's actions and the particular responsibilities for their children's actions that mothers are saddled with by a culture ever eager to find women not maternal enough, or not in the right ways. A similar plot, with similar themes, shapes Amber Garza's latest "domestic suspense" novel, A MOTHER WOULD KNOW, but Garza builds her plot up to a twist that arguably questions Shriver's mommy-blaming world-view and challenges various stereotypes of mothers, daughters, and sons.

In A MOTHER WOULD KNOW, the protagonist, suburban mother Valerie, doesn't know a lot of things. She's starting to lose her mother, just as her mother, afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer's, frighteningly did. She's not sure what's going on in the life of her son Hudson, a boomeranging couch-surfer with a scruffy beard and fragmentary employment history--and a dark secret involving his long-ago girlfriend. Valerie also doesn't know how to make the life she wants. A singer, she claims that she never wanted to be a mother, she wanted fame. Maternity and fame don't mix, or can they? In her children's distant childhood, Valerie tried to sing in a local band, a sad pastiche of something like Journey, but fails to impress her family or the neighborhood, while her co-singer Mac impresses her considerably.

By the time Hudson comes home to stay, Valerie is a widow, sometimes caring for daughter Kendra's baby son while Kendra completes a nursing degree. Kendra's husband Theo is the perfect dad but not as available a caregiver as Valerie is or Kendra needs him to be. Kendra is also the kind of perfect American suburbanite mom who "does her own research" on things usually in the domain of trained scientists, like neurology and nutrition. Never as self-assured or responsible as Kendra, Valerie just goes along for the ride.

When a local young woman whom Hudson knows turns up dead at home, and the police declare her death a homicide, Valerie can't help but suspect Hudson. She doesn't want it to be him, but if anyone would know, it would be his mother--just as, in WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, the eponymous murderer's mother kind of intuitively knew what kind of monster her negligence had created. Is that what's going on in A MOTHER WOULD KNOW, or is there a more complicated explanation of Valerie's neighborhood's wealth of guilt and secrets? Garza's storytelling keeps the reader wondering until it's all resolved in the end. That resolution is slightly unsatisfying. In some ways, it makes sense. In others, it doesn't. In any case, Garza leaves the reader with plenty to think about that matters in reality.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, December 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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