Where oh where have all the proofreaders gone? Paula Bomer’s Nine Months is published by the venerable Soho Press, whose impeccable indie credentials are older than many of their writers. I’m not talking Bill’s Backyard Books or self-publication, where the writer must rely on herself, a spellchecker, or perhaps a friend familiar with the alphabet. Bomer and her readers deserve better than the misspellings in Nine Months that trip the reader midsentence, the reading equivalent of a Doc Marten boot interrupting your morning walk. The first time, you’re ticked. The second and third times, the annoyance level ratchets from irritation to “if this book weren’t otherwise so good, I’d chuck it.”
For the record, demerol is the beloved drug of migraineurs everywhere, not “demoral”. The Yiddish term for a clumsy person is klutz, not “clutz”, and New York’s Sonnabend Art Gallery, and is not spelled “Sonnebende”. And to take a quick glance is to peek, not “peak”. Editors, I beg thee: for the love of literature, please proofread.
Now to the fun part: the book itself.
In Nine Months, Bomer takes on Brooklyn Mommy Culture, the current obsession with all things surrounding birth and childrearing. Like all subcultures, Brooklyn Mommy Culture flourishes on a spectrum, ranging from women who insist on home births, midwife and kiddie pool included, to those preferring hospitals. Like Nine Months’s narrator, Sonia, these mothers eschew all drugs, less they pass the placental barrier, opting instead for natural childbirth. Breastfeeding is de rigueur. Both mother and child’s diet are objects of insane scrutiny. Organic, dairy-free, no gluten, no meat, no sugar, no salt, no fat, no fun. For the mother, no liquor or medications.
All choices are subject to the judgment of your friends, the women you know at the park, co-workers, families, and complete strangers. As you might imagine, coping with all this pressure atop the already heavy responsibility of caring for children does not make for a happy life.
In Nine Months, Bomer takes these attitudes head-on, in blunt, brave writing. Brave because moralistic attitudes about women, childbirth, the sanctity of motherhood, and the idea that real mothers must give themselves up entirely to childrearing are alive and well, even among the generations seeking—and often failing—to “have it all”. In Sonia’s Brooklyn, women are able to stay home and raise their children while husbands work long hours. But women still sacrifice: in Sonia’s case, her serious painting talent is put on hold while she raises sons Tom and Mike.
Tom is four years old, Mike, two. Both boys are becoming increasingly independent, leaving Sonia and her husband, Dick, more time than they’ve had in years. The couple are relishing their newfound freedom when Sonia learns she is pregnant. The pregnancy is neither expected or nor welcome. Sonia’s dreams of taking up tennis and returning to her easel fade as she angrily contemplates two more years of sleeplessness and shitty diapers. The couple consider abortion. Dick will support whatever Sonia decides. Sonia, despite her rage, is indecisive.
Bomer’s Sonia is no Brooklyn Mommy. Sonia loves her children, but she desperately wants—needs—to return to some semblance of her pre-motherhood self. Wary of an abortion, she endures the misery of the first trimester: endless nausea, mood swings, physical changes. Bomer is articulate, searing, and blastingly funny on pregnancy and childbirth, offering graphic descriptions certain to give men and childless women real insight into how pregnancy and childbirth truly feel. While these descriptions are not for the fainthearted, they would make excellent reading in high school sex education courses.
After informing Dick of her pregnancy over the telephone, Sonia takes her children to the park, carefully choosing a playground far from her apartment, where anonymity is possible. Sonia would like somebody to talk to, but:
“…regardless of the liberal posturing of many residents of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, almost everyone, or so it seems to Sonia, is really ruled by fear and hate… all the allegedly liberal mothers in her neighborhood—with the spiritual Eastern symbol tattoos and Crocs—really think being a mother is sacred.”
Just after her first trimester ends, Sonia has breakfast with a few other mothers. The ensuing conversation is both alarming and hilarious. Bomer is a deft observer of “helicopter mothers” (mothers who hover too close to their children) and their lunatic efforts to raise perfect children. After vilifying Sonia for sending her children to a particular preschool, the discussion moves to the other women’s children. Sam, aged four, is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder because he isn’t reading yet. He is already on medication. Fellow four-year-old Henry has “Unclear Developmental Disorder”, a diagnosis predicated on his fondness for playing only with toy cars.
Sonia loathes these mothers who are forcing their children to be faultless automatons courtesy of medications and a staff of therapists. She is disgusted by their sense of entitlement: the private schools, the ability to stay at home and recreationally shop. Sonia doesn’t want to be sacred. She’d prefer to beKaren Finley. She casts about for role models, successful female artists who have successfully raised children. She draws an angry blank, even as she decides to keep her child.
Realizing their two-bedroom apartment will be too small for a family of five, Sonia makes a few disastrous forays into Queens and New Jersey before snapping. In classic American fashion, she throws some clothing into the family car, empties the joint bank account, and hits the road.Initially the trip lacks an itinerary or destination. Sonia simply drives, moving from hotel to hotel, eating huge restaurant meals and mindlessly watching television. She does everything a pregnant woman is warned not to, albeit carefully, indulging in drink, the occasional cigarette or joint, and an extramarital jaunt in a parking lot.
Raised in a family of girls, Sonia is a lusty sensualist who vastly prefers male company. Marriage and motherhood come after several happily raunchy years of painting, partying, and sex. Lots of it. Sonia happily slept with musicians and numerous arty types, notably her much older painting teacher, Philbert Rush. Marriage has put little damper on her sex drive, filling Nine Months with a variety of vividly written encounters.
But even Jack Kerouac had a destination on his road trip. Thus, Sonia’s meandering trip becomes a journey backward, the adult Sonia revisiting the person she was. She travels to Boston, where she attended art school and waitressed. She stops by her favorite rock club, where she once sashayed past the velvet rope toward one-night-stands with musicians. The club is somewhat changed, but she runs into an old friend, a musician whose heroin habit is sadly unabated. Gathering her nerve, she telephones her former best friend, the rebellious Katrina.
Katrina was a charismatic presence who taught Sonia how to be a sexual being. A decade later, Katrina is married with a child. She’s also a strict vegetarian into live foods, colonics, and celibacy, much to the unhappiness of her husband. Sonia is amazed, dismayed: “Well, I don’t know, Katrina! Not having sex? You loved sex! You taught me to how to love sex! I have never….met anyone like you before. Someone who so unabashedly loved sex.” Katrina is unmoved, replying that after childbirth, “Our sexual self is never the same again.”
After a grim vegetarian meal and an uncomfortable night, Sonia flees her former friend, heading for her hometown, South Bend, Indiana. There she meets a high school friend, Larissa. The experience is little better. Larissa is no sanctimonious locavore; what’s frightening about her is how little she’s changed.
From Indiana Sonia drives to Colorado, to visit her sister Nicky. Like so many people, Nicky has found herself a lifestyle—the wild West gal– and rigidly adhered to it. Her husband and eight-year-old son hunt all the family’s meat and only eat vegetables grown in their garden or foraged. Sonia isn’t in the house ten minutes before they’re hectoring her about the perils of eating wheat. At this, she realizes it’s time to return to Brooklyn, and begins a torturously wintry drive back across the country. However, she has one final visit to pay before leaving her past: Philbert Rush.
Only Rush, a classically misanthropic painter, has remained true to his ideals. He lives alone, his life designed to accommodate painting. He has become a monster in the process, a fact that doesn’t deter Sonia. She is still awed by his talent, and laps up his nastiness, even as he excoriates her life choices.
Back on the road, Sonia’s journey is interrupted in Philadelphia by the arrival of her daughter. I have never read a clearer description of childbirth nor a better argument for epidurals. (This is not a plot spoiler. Nine Months begins with the girl’s birth.)
Nine Months closes on an uncertain note, but it’s the correct one. We know—and are happy to know—that Sonia will never lose her essential self, no matter how many children she has. It’s heartening to know the Sonias of the world, and their creators, are out there, having kids and raising them without the strictures of Brooklyn Mommy Culture. Is Sonia subversive or sane? Read the book and decide.