Calico’s debut novel-in-stories captures moments in the lives of four German women, all raised by mothers suffering from borderline personality disorder.
This book’s quartet of mothers and daughters was inspired by Christine Ann Lawson’s nonfiction book Understanding the Borderline Mother (2002), and its four borderline personality “types”: the hermit, the queen, the waif, and the witch. Caren is “The Hermit’s Daughter,” a successful lawyer who nonetheless becomes meek around her impossible-to-please mother, Ute. A Christmas get-together turns ugly when Ute shrugs off Caren’s lavish gifts and delights in sharing humiliating stories with Caren’s infuriated husband. Single mother Irja is “The Queen’s Daughter”; her actress mother, Ada, is “usually critical, sometimes degrading, and every once in a while, downright cruel.” Irja learns that Ada discarded her grandson’s favorite toy, declaring it “disgusting,” and she realizes she must cut ties for her child’s sake. Jo, “The Waif's Daughter,” has sacrificed much to her mother Gudrun’s paralyzing fears. “However,” her therapist says, “it’s not up to you to solve your mother’s problems.” With this insight, Jo finds joy through horseback riding. Meanwhile, homeless bike messenger Mandy, “The Witch’s Daughter,” fled her mother Petra’s abuse when she was a teenager; she hasn’t spoken in a long time due to a stutter, until a chance encounter leads her to getting the help she needs. Calico fills her self-contained chapters with effectively symbolic unburdenings, such as Caren’s chopping off her brand-new, painful hair extensions (“When she was finished, she saw an unfamiliar woman in the mirror….And, for the first time, Caren smiled, and it didn’t hurt a bit”) and Irja’s deleting Ada’s contact info from her phone. However, these tales tend to stop and start abruptly, giving the novel as a whole a scattered feel. The overall impact of Calico’s message—that the mentally ill can be abusers and the abused must tend to their own needs first—is unfortunately weakened by the book’s diffuse structure.
A disjointed novel about women dealing with the fallout of mental illness.