Made by Mary is an intimate, compelling, tightly plotted, enjoyable novel about an extraordinary mother-daughter relationship. The mother is the fifty-five year old Mary. The daughter is the thirty-year old Ann, the name shortened from Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food and nourishment. Well before the novel begins, the daughter rejects her exotic name for the nearly anonymous Ann, a change that Mary could never understand nor fully accept. Names are complicated; Annapurna is also the name of one of the most dangerous mountains in the Himalayas; Ann is the name of the biblical mother of Mary. These multiple levels are at play in the novel.
Mary is a larger than life earth mother, who habitually exaggerates and is given to flights of fantasy and wish fulfillment to compensate for a reality that never measures up to her grandiose illusions. For example, she claims to have given birth to Ann(apurna) during the Woodstock Festival, the birth announced from the stage, and she is unfazed when her truth-bound Ann calls out the lie. Confronted by the lie, Mary simply ignores it and moves on to the next grandiose illusion. She is as much the Venus of Willendorf as she is a female Falstaff, but Ann is no female Prince Hal.
While Mary is completely comfortable and revels in the sensuous carnality of her body, Ann lives with a body that betrays her. Although Ann looks perfectly normal and attractive, and as the novel begins has been married for nearly a year and is eager to start a traditional family with her compatible, understanding husband, Joel, we soon discover that Ann is not only infertile but was born with the Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome, a mouthful that means Ann was born with no uterus. For Ann, her body carries a complete negation of all that is feminine and womanly, a curse she’s carried her whole life, which may be the reason that her whole life seems to center around children. Ann is a preschool teacher, and is attuned to children wherever she goes. Her quest for motherhood is the backbone of the story.
The novel is divided into four main sanctions that serve as chapters and are titled respectively: Earth: 1999, Air: 1999-2000, Fire: 2000; Water: 2000. A fifth section, Spirit: 2000, is shorter than the others and is the denouement, closing the book. Each of these sections is composed of short, bite-sized pieces of a couple of pages, so the book moves quickly along, shifting easily from place to place, scene to scene, and from present to past and back again, filling in background and character history, while maintaining a tight control of structure, so the story telling creates the feeling of a mosaic and a sense that the past is never past.
These section titles also telegraph an important element of the novel; neo-paganism. Mary and all her close circle of friends self-identify as feminist pagans. The license plate of Mary’s vintage green VW bug reads WCCNWMN next to the bumper-sticker that reads ‘proud to be a Pagan,’ guaranteed to draw attention in their small upstate New York community near Woodstock. Mary, not good at relationships has been in and out of a string of them and is currently in a lesbian relation with a woman named America. They are part of a feminist network guided by Sage Wisewoman, a Wiccan priestess.
This is the predominant worldview of the novel and the one that Ann confronts as she tries to live a ‘normal’ life, denying the spiritual feminine principles that nature manifests around her. For Ann, this is all superstition. Born in a commune and raised in the New Age counterculture, she rejected all of it when she realized that she was not a normal woman, that she could never be pregnant, which, for her, was a curse, although Mary kept telling her that she was lucky because she had built-in protection.
Mary is a successful, committed artist. She supports herself designing and making jewelry from semiprecious stones, minerals, and metals. She recognizes the variety of forces and powers contained in the stones and minerals she works with; they guide her so that the pieces she creates are more like talismans than anything else. She knows that the world is full of forces we do not see if we close ourselves off from them.
An artist in his way, Joel is a builder. Next door to his and Ann’s trailer, he is building the house for their eventual family. They have no doubt that they will have children, the question is how and when, not if. The gradual progress of the house parallels the gradual unfolding of the answer.
One of the many pleasures of this book is that there are no real villains. Of course, some characters are venial, selfish, immature and mean, but these characters are minor and have little lasting impact. They do serve an important purpose; they are reminders that the world of Mary, Ann, Sage, and the others is different from that of ordinary society, and a good deal of the novel’s pleasure comes from the various collisions of these different worlds.
The novel threads Ann’s and Mary’s love-hate relationship with Ann’s spiritual quest to become whole, to accept the reality of the feminine principle she carries. As Sage tells her, Ann has the gift if she would just open herself to it. This thread is twined with Ann’s need for children. She and Joel have been trying to adopt, but his felony conviction as a teenager for marijuana possession makes adoption impossible.
Although Mary, Ann, and their circle have little to do with the interventions of western, evidence-based medical technology, they recognize that it does have its place, which is as the last resort, when all else fails, and for them this last resort is in vitro fertilization, IVF, a cutting-edge technological invasion of the very feminine principle itself. Joel can produce sperm and Ann can produce eggs; she just has no place for the fertilized egg to grow. Because of the love-hate-need-guilt-resentment that defines Ann’s and Mary’s co-dependence, Mary offers to be the surrogate mother, making her the mother of her own grandchild, which, while bizarre and unusual, is not prohibited or even a biological risk. The idea also appeals powerfully to Mary’s outsize sense of her impossible self.
These characters, as appealing and charming as they are, are capable of monumental errors of judgement. With heroes like these, who needs villains? Mary, being the birth mother of her daughter’s child, is only one example. Things get rapidly out of control when they discover that the larger than life Mary is pregnant with quadruplets, which puts her already oversize fifty-five year old body through the wringer. It also puts Joel in a hell of an economic one, not to mention the couple of grand that Mary had shorted her lover, America, during a pot deal in yet another example of monumental bad judgment.
Despite Joel’s impatience with Mary’s flakiness and his previous felony conviction, he and Mary partner with America to turn one room in Mary’s house (named Sunrise, by the way) into a marijuana grow room. After all, they argue, by all rights marijuana should be legal.
Thanks to Laura Catherine Brown’s skilled writing, these decisions all makes sense given the personalities, even as we say ‘Oh, what a bad idea.’ We can understand Mary, Joel, and even America better than Ann can when she finds out about the grow room, and of course she does. Given Ann’s history with her mother and her commitment to Joel, we understand her helpless capitulation to the idea, and even eventual willingness to help with the green room on the second floor. We all hope they get away with it. And that they do is no big reveal; it is just a matter of how the story unfolds. What counts is the trip, not the destination.
The far more important element of the story is that with the larger-than-live birth by the colossal earth Mother Mary, Ann is born into her authentic self, brought to recognize and embrace the spiritual reality of the feminine principle at work behind the natural order of things. So the coda brings this well-written spiritual quest and intimate visit with fascinating people to a most satisfying conclusion.
Made by Mary, by Laura Catherine Brown. C&R Press, May 2018. 342 pages. $19.00, paper.
Leonard Temme is a research neuropsychologist in a government research laboratory. He studied writing most extensively with Marie Ponsot, Sue Walker, Josh Davis, and Kristina Darling. In addition to his professional publications, his writing has appeared numerous literary and small presses. He served as Poet Laureate of North West Florida between 1989 and 1992.