That Kind of Mother
Rumaan Alam opens his second novel by plunging us immediately into Rebecca Stone’s interiority, introducing us to this character just as she gives birth to her first child. That Kind of Mother follows Rebecca Stone on her journey as a wife, mother, and aspiring poet. The novel takes place in the late ’80s to early ’90s, and Rebecca is a white woman gifted with every amount of privilege. She lives in a large home with her husband Christopher and their new son Jacob, and she stays home to work on her writing while her son is looked after by Priscilla, their black nanny. Rebecca claims to think of Priscilla as family but knows little to nothing about her life. For Rebecca, Priscilla is simply an extension of her, and when Priscilla comes to her, pregnant, Rebecca almost can’t believe that their nanny has a life outside of the one with her, Jacob, and Christopher.
That Kind of Mother is a book about race, privilege, and motherhood. When Priscilla dies in childbirth, Rebecca offers to take the baby home, relieving Priscilla’s adult daughter Cheryl of the burden, as she, too, has a baby on the way. Though it starts as a temporary arrangement, Rebecca singularly decides to adopt the baby, Andrew, despite her husband’s misgivings and no indication that this is what Priscilla would have wanted. Though Rebecca loves Andrew as her own, we begin to see her shortcomings as a white woman of privilege raising a black child. For instance, when Cheryl tries to recommend shea butter for Andrew’s skin, saying, “Black skin, it can require extra care,” Rebecca responds, “Skin is skin.” At many times, she refuses to acknowledge the racial differences, instead choosing willful ignorance and colorblindness when it comes to Andrew. Cheryl chides her, though, saying, “I’m telling you about black skin. . . You could—you could listen to me.” Rebecca’s self-absorption remains a common theme throughout the novel, and Alam interrogates these ideas of privilege and white motherhood.
At times, the message can seem overtly obvious, as though Alam is directly telling the reader that racism exists in America, but the ideas he covers are no less important. In one scene, Cheryl’s husband describes an encounter with the police, in which he’s pulled over and brutally forced to lie down on the ground for no reason. Rebecca is beside herself, unable to fathom that something like this can happen in America. Meanwhile, Cheryl and her husband implore Rebecca to tell Andrew this story, adding, “Black kids don’t get to be kids much longer than twelve, really.”
Alam interrogates many of the issues of white families adopting black children. Though Rebecca essentially does a good thing, taking in a motherless child, her position as a privileged white woman creates a number of shortcomings in her ability to raise Andrew. To her, race and racial divides are abstract, and she remains ignorant of the black experience altogether, assuming she can care for both of her children in the same manner. In many ways, Rebecca assumes that Andrew, by virtue of being raised in a white, upper-middle class family, will not experience racism. That Kind of Mother is an important work if only to show the complicated nature of white families adopting black children.
As a whole, though, the novel is about Rebecca. We don’t see Andrew’s experiences, for instance, and we don’t know how her whiteness has actually affected him, as this is Rebecca’s story. Although she is not an entirely unlikeable character, her narcissism and privilege can at times be grating, and this seems to be exactly the effect Alam intended. We see the world through her eyes—her obsession with Princess Diana, her self-righteousness, her unwavering dedication to motherhood. Rebecca is both complicated and problematic. She doesn’t quite listen when people speak to her, and the other characters exist only in relation to her. Even Cheryl comments on this, saying, “You think I’m an extension of you. A character in your world, a supporting role.” This scene is somewhat meta, as Cheryl literally is a supporting character in this novel about Rebecca, but it’s a wake-up call to both Rebecca and the reader, reminding us of the humanity of the others in this story and further emphasizing Rebecca’s insularity and sometimes ignorance.
Still, Alam makes us feel for her through scenes of emotional vulnerability. And in the end, we see growth, as she comes to Andrew’s defense against a teacher who claims he’s misbehaved, interrogating the racial bias behind that teacher’s words.
More than anything though, Alam’s novel is beautiful on a sentence level. Right from the start, we are seamlessly pulled into a stream-of-consciousness so deep and flowing that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Alam manages to tackle a series of heavy, complicated issues all the while keeping this same voice and tone throughout the novel, and by the end, we’ve been immersed so deeply into Rebecca’s subconscious that we know and understand her fully.