“That Kind of Mother” by Rumaan Alam

I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I had never heard of it or of its author until I recently heard him on a podcast, talking about his upcoming book. While That Kind of Mother is one of his earlier books, I found his interview intriguing enough to get a copy to read. I was prepared to abandon it after a few pages if it did not grab my interest, just like the many, many books I have similarly abandoned of late. (As I grow older, I no longer want to spend the time plowing through books I “should” read and am focusing on finding and reading books that I “want” to read.)

That Kind of Mother was definitely in the latter category. The story in short — when Caroline, a young woman, gives birth to her first-born, Jacob, she is overwhelmed, especially with breast-feeding and just can’t get the baby to latch on. A lactation consultant at the hospital, Priscilla, helps her out and she is so warm and nurturing that Caroline can’t let her go — she urges her to come and work for her as Jacob’s nanny, and Priscilla accepts. Caroline’s life as a young mother seems unimaginable without Priscilla, and when Priscilla gets pregnant and dies unexpectedly of complications during childbirth — she is over 40 — Caroline ends up adopting Priscilla’s baby, Andrew.  It was something she simply had to do — she had a deep connection with Priscilla, and she feels the same for Andrew. (The adoption is enabled by Priscilla’s grown-up daughter, who has just had a baby of her own and is overwhelmed by her newborn as well as the grief over her mother’s death.)

Caroline and her husband, Christopher, do not have any more children, and their family seems complete with their two sons, Jacob and Andrew. There is nothing remarkable about this, except for the fact that Andrew is black. (Priscilla was black, and while she never disclosed who the father of her baby was, he was presumably black as well.) While this fact does not mean anything to Caroline — she has adopted Andrew, he is her son, and she is the only mother he has ever known since he was born — it is hard for others to ignore, including her parents, siblings, colleagues at work, and once the boys grow older, their school teachers as well.

In addition to being beautifully written, what I really liked about That Kind of Mother is that it was so understated, completely devoid of any melodrama. With a story focused on a white woman adopting a black child, none of the awful things you would expect to happen actually happen. While Caroline does encounter some racist comments throughout, her family does manage, by and large, to live a normal life. Christopher is supportive of the adoption, and even though he did not feel the same sense of connection that Caroline felt, first with Priscilla and then with Andrew, he soon comes to love Andrew as a son. While Caroline and Christopher do eventually divorce after many years of marriage this has more to do with them growing apart than anything to do with Andrew. Also, their separation is far from acrimonious — they even go on family vacations together. Their biological child, Jacob, is very much the big brother to Andrew, and their dynamics are what they would be for siblings — they fight like normal brothers and also bond like normal brothers. Caroline goes though the usual trials and tribulations of mothering kids and eventually manages to get back to her career as a poet, even winning some awards along the way.

There is no climax to the story as such (which is probably why it is relatively unknown). You keep waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, for something bad to happen to the black son, or to the family for being white and having a black son. But at the time the book was set — from 1985 to 1999 — perhaps there was less overt racism of the kind there is now. I can’t imagine a book like this being set in the current times, where the chances of something terrible happening are much higher. Yet, the book ends, at the cusp of 1999, with Caroline’s belief that the new century will bring a better world, one in which her black son and her white son “will be judged equals.”

If only she knew!

That Kind of Mother
Author: Rumaan Alam
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

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