Frankel explores the boundaries of family in her first novel, about three young women in Seattle who share the experience of motherhood when one becomes pregnant.
Narrator Janey, a nice Jewish girl from Canada, meets vegetarian Jill and devoutly Mormon Katie while they are all grad students in English lit. When Jill becomes pregnant, she realizes she wants to keep the baby, but her much younger boyfriend Dan, who is only now about to graduate from college, balks. So Janey and Katie happily agree to help Jill raise the baby, and all move in together. Soon baby Atlas arrives. The girls set up a complicated schedule of childcare, teaching and preparing for their dissertations. Janey’s solipsistic account of their travails may not sound very difficult or dramatic to anyone who has actually been a mother and/or held a job. Janey cooks, Jill cleans, Katie shops. Their happily coupled gay friends Jason and Lucas become adjunct members of the extended family—Katie loves them even if her religion doesn’t—along with Jill’s loving single mother Diane and Janey’s even more loving parents and grandmother. Katie has a couple of dates with a charming history grad student named Ethan, but he won’t convert to Mormonism. Not to worry. Soon she meets 21-year-old Mormon Peter (no surprise that these remarkably innocent girls like younger men) and becomes engaged within a week, while the growing friendship between Janey and Ethan vibrates with definite romantic tension—although sex in this novel is of the kissy/cuddly variety and Janey has no personality. Then Dan reappears in Jill’s life and things fall apart. Atlas ends up in the emergency room. Janey and Jill have a major falling out, and Jill moves with Atlas to Dan’s. Has the shared mothering experiment failed? The death of Janey’s grandmother, while sad, unites friends and lovers. After all, everyone’s intentions are good.
Despite Janey’s self-important mini-lectures tying her story to narrative theory, Frankel offers no more than a shallow, feel-good weepy.