A Modern Mom Finds an Ancient Outlet for Feminist Rage


What is the source of maternal rage? The answer is as infinite as it is ancient. In 1965, the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, with small children underfoot, captured a possible explanation for this abyss in her journal when she described it as “a sense of insufficiency to the moment and to eternity.”

But where — for moms, for women — does this nagging feeling of insufficiency come from? From the misogyny that we grow up with? From the helpless outrage we bear as our messy, gorgeous, individual maternal experiences are flattened by society into a weirdly infantilized stereotype that’s placed, like a paper doll, into a two-dimensional dollhouse called “Motherhood”? Or does it come from the profound feeling of helplessness that accompanies the ability to give life to a human being, but be unable to ensure that life’s safety?

Ava Zaretsky, the diligent heroine of Alexis Landau’s ambitious and engaging new novel, “The Mother of All Things” (her third after “Those Who Are Saved” and “The Emperor of the Senses”), simmers with a steady rage that never fully erupts toward her kids (Sam, 10, and Margot, 13, who’s at the edge of “adolescence’s dark tunnel”) or her husband, Kasper, a preoccupied Los Angeles film producer. Rather, Ava’s rage burns beneath the surface, “so white and hot it blurred the contours of her body.” She is angry that, in a marriage of supposed equals circa 2019, Kasper can relocate to Sofia, Bulgaria, for a six-month film shoot without a second thought, while her own work as an adjunct art history professor is smudged out by the needs of her family. Her fury is also embedded, we later learn, in the powerlessness that comes with profound loss.

When the family joins Kasper in Sofia for the summer, the kids enroll in a day camp, allowing Ava to wander this mysterious city. Her curiosity and creativity bubble to the surface. She begins writing about an ancient Greek woman whose life parallels and dovetails with her own, and whose narrative is interspersed throughout the pages of the novel. By coincidence, Ava also reconnects in Sofia with an intimidating former professor named Lydia Nikitas and becomes involved in a group of women who participate in re-enactments of ancient rites and rituals, most notably the Eleusinian Mysteries.

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