mothermotherMother, Mother is the debut novel by Koren Zailckas, the bestselling writer of the memoir, Smashed. It’s coming from Crown on September 17th and it’s awesome. Mother, Mother is A. M. Homes with a twist of Gillian Flynn and a dash of Mommie Dearest. I read an e galley provided by the publisher.

If you share my interest in novels about how families work, then this debut has to be on your must-read list. It takes place in Kingston in upstate New York in a neighborhood of dark ivy and historic stone-built houses. This is Hudson River Valley country, beautiful, rustic and privileged.

The chapters alternate between the two siblings that we can account for: twelve year-old William and sixteen year-old Violet. There’s a third sibling, college-age Rose.. But Rose is one of those characters that seems to be hovering in the background, haunting the Hurst residence.

Some of the Hursts even think they see her in the house on occasion, or think they see her handiwork of destruction. Has she snuck back in to tear her pictures out the the family album? Was she actually present when Violet took a knife to her little brother, William? Rose is missing, her motives unclear.

Violet and William are like the opposite ends of a wishbone that’s being pulled apart. Violet…who I just mistyped as violent…has been hanging out with her best friend, Imogene, her brother Finch who’s a heart-throb, and Finch’s best friend, Jasper. They are her support group since she can’t relate to her own family. They’re presided over by Beryl, a sympathetic adult who is tragically dying of cancer. Violet’s life is filled with empathetic, older women. Unfortunately, none of them is her mother, Josephine, who’s a lunatic with a plan.

The kids prepare a mixture of crushed morning glory seeds in a Mason jar in order to get high from a legally available substance. Violet has tripped as an escape hatch from her stressful family. She’s blacked out what really happened in the family kitchen when she is said to have shredded her baby brother’s hand with a knife. Once you get to know Violet, you’ll have some doubts that she did it.

Violet has plenty of time to think about what really happened. Her family has had her committed to Fallkill. In bed, Violet is wakened every fifteen minutes by a nurse with a flashlight. She realizes she must be on suicide watch.

At the hospital that she’s not allowed to leave, she makes friends with her mixed-up peers Corinna and Edie. There’s a real scary scene where the troubled Edie tears out the spiral in her notebook binding and slices her arm up the side with it. But these kids are survivors, with Violet as the leader of the pack. I haven’t seen such a sympathetic portrayal of children in a novel since A. M. Homes May We Be Forgiven. The children carry the novel in Mother, Mother.

Edie, a precocious kid who seems like she’d studied advanced psychoanalysis in Vienna, explains to her friend Violet that in families that don’t communicate, like the Hursts, some family member can become the go-between for everyone. And that person ends up wielding decisive leverage. In the Hurst family, it’s matriarch Josephine.

Josephine has “owned” her twelve-year-old son, Will, calling him her stud and pinching his ass. She’s turned him into her miniature husband. And she demands worship. She goes to a series of doctors until she can get a diagnosis of autism for Will. She then pulls him out of school and home teaches him. He ends up falling years behind his peers but he’s with his mama now and that’s what’s important to Josephine.

There’s a tense dynamic between the alternating chapters on Will and Violet. Will is the good son who conforms while Violet is the independent daughter who rebels. As in Gillian Flynn’s smash Gone Girl there is absolutely no length to which Josephine will not go to manipulate her family.

It’s striking that when Will catches his mother in obvious lies, he still can’t bring himself to acknowledge that his mom might be defrauding other members of the family. He even covers for her. He’s been terrorized into thinking he can’t live without her.

Mother, Mother presents the American family as a nightmare that leaves its offspring with no alternative but to escape or be devoured. It’s touching when Violet is asked sympathetic questions by her adult good neighbor, Beryl. Beryl’s questions are open-ended, not requiring any particular answer as right or wrong. When Violet realizes that an adult is not manipulating her into giving one “correct” answer, she’s stunned into silence.

I raced through the last chapters of Mother, Mother as its mysteries were gradually uncovered and its final plot lines satanically unfolded. A little overdramatized perhaps, but I loved it anyway. Wonderful read. 110% entertaining. Bestseller.