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Shout Her Lovely Name

August 30, 2012

Before I flew off to the Pacific Northwest earlier this month, I won a copy of Shout Her Lovely Name, by Natalie Serber, from Lori at She Treads Softly. The book came in a canvas tote bag with the title on it, on the day I got back from taking Eleanor to Grinnell for the beginning of her second year of college. So, of course, I sat down and started reading it immediately, as it’s a series of sometimes-connected short stories about mothers and daughters.

The first one—the title story—is about an unnamed mother and daughter who are wrestling each other over who is in charge of the daughter’s body, which she is very close to starving to death. It made me remember what it was like when my own daughter was younger and asserting her own independence. I’d watched a terrible movie that I don’t recommend entitled Thirteen, and its one virtue was that it provided me with a reminder of how much adolescence is not about the parent—so I used to have conversations like this one in my own head:
“How you feel doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, but she used to love me.”
“This isn’t about you.”
The wonderful thing about the title is that, of course, the daughter’s name is loveliest to her mother, who chose it from all the other names in the world. So shouting it is not altogether about the other person. Although I think it’s only the mother who feels that.

The middle section introduces a young girl named Ruby interacting with her parents, and then skips to Ruby’s own motherhood and a series of stories from her daughter Nora’s point of view. I like the way the stories move quickly through Nora’s childhood. There’s a point at which Ruby is teaching a class and responding to journal entries, and Nora “felt glad her mother wanted to aid and comfort the girls. It made her mother seem stronger somehow, as if there was enough of her to go around.” I remember those days with a young daughter, when it seemed like everyone needed something and there might well not be enough for everyone.

Then, in the flip of a few pages, Nora has grown up and met her father, who wasn’t around during her childhood but whose looks she appraises as her mother might have, thinking that a clerk in an airport shop “smiled at him the way women do at handsome men, like she’d be willing to unwrap a stick of gum, slide it into his mouth, and tuck the wrapper into her purse to throw away later.”

It seems abrupt when the last story doesn’t pursue Nora at all, but some other woman who is realizing that “never again would he run to her, skin warm from playing, soft hair clinging to his damp face, to throw his arms around her legs…Cassie was the center of absolutely no one’s life.”

The stories go so fast, and then you don’t even know the person whose life you’re thrown into. It’s a lot like being a mother—my children were the center of my life for so many years that now when they’re veering off to one side and another, I feel unbalanced, over-loud, and occasionally, as Cassie says, “I want…to be less vivid.” Because the job increasingly requires some degree of fading into the background.

But a big part of why Eleanor and I had such a good time on our sightseeing trip in the Pacific Northwest is that I have learned to respect at least a few of her boundaries. She “came out as gray” a few years ago at the supper table, partly to amuse me, and partly to get me off of her back about always wearing drab-colored clothing. Not many daughters make any of it that easy. I know I didn’t!

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 9:59 am

    The summers when kids return home after college are so tough! They’ve been the boss for months, but now they’re back in their childhood homes trying to adjust. It sounds like you’re doing a good job recognizing that trying to help. It must be so hard!

    • August 30, 2012 10:43 am

      Oh, Eleanor has always been the boss of herself…as soon as she could talk, she forbid me to put anything pink on her.

  2. August 30, 2012 1:56 pm

    What a laugh your daughter’s remark gave me! I probably ought to come out as gray to my aunt. But then again, you realize how these things go; I think, on some level, she’s always sort of known. . .

    • August 30, 2012 9:21 pm

      I remember the part about how I couldn’t change her, that she was born this way!

  3. August 30, 2012 1:58 pm

    Next time she needs to tell someone, she might the phrase “symphony of neutrals.” That’s the one I use. Nice positive ring to it.

    • August 30, 2012 9:22 pm

      Spin. (Because if you go around fast enough, everything looks kind of gray anyway.)

  4. August 30, 2012 8:40 pm

    I’m glad you basically enjoyed the collection. I know I especially appreciated the first story and the Ruby and Nora stories. The title story, Shout Her Lovely Name, really impacted me – probably because I have been the mother shouting my daughter’s lovely name as my heart is breaking over her struggles.

    • August 30, 2012 9:25 pm

      I really did like the order in which the stories were presented; the last one had a lot more power because of it. And yeah, the title story is a great one. Thanks for being the means by which I discovered how much I like this collection!

  5. September 2, 2012 5:04 pm

    Oh the mother-daughter relationship — if there was ever a relationship fraught with tension and drama and love and rage, it is that one. I think I want to check this out as I’m still processing a lot of my own relationship with my mother.

  6. September 5, 2012 7:36 am

    Yep. Fraught is a good word.

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