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This reading group guide forMotherlandincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Amy Sohn. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It’s just before Labor Day and five mothers and fathers in Cape Cod, Park Slope, and Greenwich Village find themselves adrift professionally and personally. Rebecca Rose, whose husband has been acting aloof, is tempted by the attentions of a former celebrity flame; Marco Goldstein, saddled with two kids as his husband Todd goes on a business trip, turns to sex with strangers for comfort; Danny Gottlieb, a screenwriter on the cusp of a big break, leaves his wife and children to pitch a film (and meet young women) in Los Angeles; fallen sanctimommy Karen Bryan Shapiro, devastated by her husband’s infidelity and abandonment, attempts a fresh start with a hot single dad; and former A-List movie star Melora Leigh plots a star turn on Broadway to revive her Hollywood career. As their stories intersect in surprising ways and their deceptions spiral out of control, they begin to question their beliefs about family, happiness, and themselves. Equal parts moving and richly entertaining, Motherland confirms Amy Sohn as one of our most insightful commentators on relationships and parenting in America today.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The characters in Motherland all are struggling with the current state of their lives. Are there specific characters with whom you feel a kinship or with empathize with more? Who would you be friends with?
2. Rebecca and CC both strive not to appear like stressed-out Park Slope moms, even though that’s exactly what they are. According to Motherland, what are the hallmarks and traits of “typical” Park Slope moms? Are they overall good with their children? What are their greatest faults?
3. On p. 67, referring to Marco, the author writes: “There were moments when he felt like he was imprisoned in Motherland. The land of child rearing, and nurturing, and nonstop care.” How do Marco’s experiences in “Motherland” differ from those of his friends, like Rebecca? What does it mean to be a gay parent in Park Slope, as opposed to a straight one? A man as opposed to a woman?
4. Although Motherland contains a lot of humor—and more than one risqué sex scene—it contains a real sense of pathos as well. How do you think the novel pulls off this balance between escapism and real-life perspective?
5. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a motivator for several of this book’s characters. How much are the characters in Motherland motivated by peer pressure? How does this philosophy help or hinder their goals?
6. Although Karen lives near some of the other characters in Motherland, her circumstances throughout much of the novel are quite different. What are the unique challenges Karen faces as a single mom? Does she have a good support system?
7. The Park Slope stroller-stealer is supposed to be reacting against the evils of gentrification. What do the strollers represent to Helene and why do they anger her so? What do the strollers represent in terms of public space? What does she miss about the old days of the neighborhood? Do you find her actions hypocritical?
8. Many of the characters in Motherland (Melora, in particular) have interactions with real-life celebrities. And even the ones who don’t interact with celebrities themselves regularly use pop-culture references and descriptions. What do you think this obsession with celebrity—and trends such as mumblecore or Grindr—tells you about these characters, and about the ways they live their lives?
9. Motherland is told from the point of view of five main characters—Rebecca, Karen, Marco, Gottlieb, and Melora—and readers experience their partners and their family life through their eyes. What would CC’s side of the story look like? Or Todd’s or Theo’s? In a similar vein, what would the children of these couples say if they had a chance to tell their own side of the story?
11. Park Slope isn’t the only location whose natives are stereotyped. When Karen goes to the supper club in Williamsburg, or Gottlieb goes out to Los Angeles, it’s clear that every city—even subsections of cities—have their own cultures, their own identities. What are the hallmarks of your own town? If you were to write a satire of your own neighborhood, what traits would you include?
12. The author uses doubling in the novel with regard to fathers and daughters. How does doubling affect your reading of the novel? What is the author trying to say about father-daughter relationships and the bind between parents and children in general?
13. How does the theme of water relate to Gottlieb’s predicament? What does water represent to him in terms of his relationship to his children, his sexual desire, and his professional ambition?
14. Each of the relationships in the book has its share of secrets and betrayals Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of marriage today? How honest do we need to be with our partners to make a relationship work?
15. The conclusion of Motherland is about new beginnings—Rebecca is focusing on her career; Karen and Wesley merge their personal and professional lives; Marco and Eduard reconnect; Melora and Gottlieb meet. Do you think these fresh starts will ultimately bring these characters happiness? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Motherland details the triumphs and hardships of a privileged class of society, but many parents and children are much less fortunate. Work with your book group members to donate to your favorite charity—whether it’s running a toy drive for Toys for Tots, gathering clothing for your local Salvation Army, or raising money for the Make A Wish Foundation.
2. The characters in Motherland interact with a fair share of celebrities. Imagine that Motherland is adapted into a film and you are the Hollywood casting director. Who would you cast for each role?
3. Karen attends an illegal supper club in Williamsburg, where she pays a hefty sum to eat an incredible meal. No need to break the law—create your own supper club by assigning each member of your book group to bring a dish or two to your regular book group meeting and make a meal out of it. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a wine pairing for each course!
4. In Motherland, Melora makes her career comeback in Lanford Wilson’s play, Fifth of July. Read the play with your book group, and assign parts. As you read, think about the performance choices Melora makes in order to play the role of Gwen. How would you play her? Are there any themes in the play that echo the themes of the novel?
A Conversation with Amy Sohn
Can you tell us a bit about your novel?
Motherland is about five mothers and fathers in Manhattan, Cape Cod, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles whose lives become unglued one summer and fall. The book is about parenthood, marriage, and the limitations of domestic life. It’s about what happens when you look around and realize you’ve given up on yourself because you were too busy worrying about other people. In engaging with my characters, I was struck by their universal need for freedom and the cost of pursuing that freedom.
The lives of your characters quickly start spiraling out of control as each struggles to find happiness in their careers and in the bedroom. How does parenthood force us to reinvent ourselves and/or redefine our expectations?
As I explored in my prior novel, Prospect Park West, parenthood has a dark side. It is thrilling, moving, and life-altering, but it is also a lot of work. My generation of parents tends to ignore our own needs in favor of our children’s, not just for the first year or two of parenthood but for much longer. This can take a toll on our marriages. Like it says in the song on “Free to Be . . . You and Me,” parents are people. Just because a woman becomes a mother, doesn’t mean she wants to stop having sex forever (though I can hear certain mothers across the nation crying out, “Yes it does!”). And just because a guy’s married, doesn’t mean he wants to feel invisible to other women. In Motherland, I explore the psychic costs of disregarding our needs.
Do you think the issues for mothers and fathers are different? How so?
In general, fathers are said to have an easier adjustment to parenthood. Their libido is said to return quickly. Some love the newfound responsibility and are inspired to work harder at their jobs. In a good marriage, it is often the father who reminds the mother that she must not neglect couplehood in favor of the children. But all fathers are different and not all have an easy time.
Gottlieb and Marco, the two dads in Motherland, are struggling with their new roles. Gottlieb is shocked to find that fatherhood hasn’t moved him the way he had hoped it might, and the way it has moved some of his peers. He’s just not that into it. He loves his wife and kids but feels like a stranger in his family, as if he is living someone else’s life.
Marco has taken to fatherhood, but he only wanted one child. His husband Todd, though, is set on having two and Marco soon re-enters the world of sleeplessness and colic that he thought he had just escaped. He feels sexually neglected by Todd and burdened by the domestic demands, which fall on his shoulders since he has the less demanding work schedule of the two. In response to the stress, he turns to drinking and seeking out strangers for sex through a gay GPS app. Neither Gottlieb nor Marco would win Father of the Year, but I’m not interested in writing novels about the guys who would.
Interestingly, the mothers in this book are all okay moms. Their issues center more on how to make money, be creatively fulfilled, transition from separation to divorce, and experience love than on how to parent their children. Perhaps this book is about fatherhood more than motherhood, despite its title.
In your writing you often alternate between very funny and very dark. Do you consider this a black comedy?
All of my novels are black comedies and my favorite writers, like Bruce Jay Friedman, are experts in the genre. I tend to be funniest when I am writing about a character who is really suffering and can’t quite seem to rebound. A writer boyfriend once advised me to “torture the heroine.” My characters tend to have downward spirals. Melora is trying to revive her acting career by doing theater and there are jokes about how desperate a person has to be before she does a straight play. Gottlieb has one of those nights in Los Angeles that starts out very very good, and soon gets very very bad, which is pretty much every single night in L.A.
Why do you like exploring sex in your books? Why do you think so few modern female novelists do so?
Sex to me is a great way to show character. It’s also a great vehicle for comedy. In Motherland, the marital sex scenes show the ridiculous aspects of having sex with the same person for ten or fifteen years. I have never approached sex scenes like a romance novelist, where the sex is hot, the men as muscled as Fabio, and the women “ravished.” In my books, the sex is awkward, ridiculous, complicated, and embarrassing. Frequently it does not end in orgasm, for one or both characters. I hope my sex scenes turn people on but my main goal is that they reveal character. A friend once said to me, “I was laughing and aroused at the same time.” I took it as a compliment.
The characters in Motherland are very much dominated by their sexuality and often act in imprudent ways because of it. I like writing women whose sex drives are as high as any man’s because I don’t think we hear from these women enough except in comedic, campy ways. And I enjoy reading about sex. I wish more women novelists addressed sex in an honest way because I don’t think a portrait of singlehood or marriage can be complete without a portrait of the characters’ sex lives.
Talk about the universal appeal of your book, despite the fact that it’s primarily set in Brooklyn. Do you think this story could take place in other parts of the country?
Whether you call it Silver Lake or Wicker Park, every major American city has a “Park Slope.” It’s a neighborhood where strollers and dogs dominate, there are a lot of coffee options, everyone knows what a doula is, and the public schools are good. Women dress in pajamas or gym clothes, or most disturbingly, some combination. “Bohemian bourgeois breeders” was how an editor of mine named these people. When I toured with Prospect Park West, readers had a fun time arguing about which neighborhood in their cities was most like Park Slope.
Motherland could just as easily take place in those other neighborhoods as Park Slope. To the extent that I have had my fill of satirizing my ‘hood, in this novel I was eager to place some of the action in Motherland outside of Park Slope, which is why it takes place in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Cape Cod as well as the Slope. This is a book about people who feel confined not only by family life but the physical boundaries of their very small-seeming neighborhoods.
Three of the women of Prospect Park West, Rebecca, Karen, and Melora, reappear in Motherland. Why did you decide to revisit these characters? At the end of Prospect Park West, Rebecca, Karen, and Melora were all at a point of transition and I wanted to revisit their lives and answer some questions that were left hanging. One of the most surprising aspects of Motherland for me was the way Melora and Karen shifted and matured. They really surprised me as they grew. The two novels are snapshots of the women at very different points in their evolution. It’s one reason I feel that the books can easily be read in reverse chronological order. You can come in at different points in their lives and be equally engaged.
Was there a specific scene in the book that was the most fun to write?
I loved Melora’s disappointing business meeting. I always feel that people find their grace or their humor when they are at their lowest. I also find the conceit of the “meeting” to be quite terrifying. Melora is humbled that she even has to take one at a point in her career in which she thought she was done.
I also enjoyed the Los Angeles night scene, where Gottlieb and his screenwriting partner hear from L.A. girls what it is like to date in Hollywood. I tried hard to make the girls smarter and spicier than the stereotype people might have of a certain kind of nubile twentysomething making a living out there. Maybe those girls will get their own spinoff book.
Is there a character in the book you most identify with? One you most dislike?
The characters I most identify with are Gottlieb and Melora. Gottlieb is less of a thinker than I am, but he is a striver and ambitious. I relate to that. He also has his own quiet spirituality that no one really knows about. As for Melora, she is an actress who knows she is smarter than her director. I was a child actress and there were moments when I felt that way, which was complicated by the fact that I was a kid. An actor shouldn’t contradict the director and a child shouldn’t contradict an adult. I understand Melora’s internal struggle and relate to her completely illogical and ill-advised sexual attraction to an older man. I’ve had a lot of those in my life.
What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
First of all, I hope they will find the book diverting and engrossing. Second, I hope it will make them appreciate the people in their lives who love them. My characters lie to and trick their loved ones out of desperation. Their partners don’t realize how alienated they have become. I think as a parent it is all too easy to “muddle through,” where every day is okay but not great. The routine that children thrive on can become crushing for the adults. Motherland is about characters who have reached a point where they can no longer muddle through. I am not encouraging women to leave their husbands and I certainly do not want to become the Ingmar Bergman of Park Slope, causing the divorce rate to spike, but I do think parents deserve to be happy and should communicate more about what they need. I also think more parents should realize that if the adults are not happy it will have a negative impact on the kids.