The cover of Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead suggests a story that is gentle and relatively undemanding but beyond the pastels is a thoughtful examination of the relationships between mothers and daughters, complete with the funny and loving moments, the frustrations and complexities, and the sadnesses.
It begins in 1980, New York City, with Laura who is Park Avenue born and bred. Laura considers herself progressive – she is deeply concerned about the environment; lives in Harlem (well, on the border); uses the subway and shops locally. Yet she has a cushy job via the family trust and her mortgage is paid for by her parents – the slightly eccentric Bibs and the formidable Doug.
After an out-of-character casual encounter, Laura discovers she is pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Bibs falsely informs her society friends that the baby is fathered by a Swedish sperm donor although she’s not opposed to Laura’s single status, saying of marriage, “It doesn’t matter who you marry, one day you’ll be sitting across the table from him thinking, Anything would be better than this.”
Emma is born. Like most babies, Emma does not observe order and routine.
…it still struck Laura as a roll of the dice – to allow fate to assign you a person whom you were expected to adore for the rest of your life. You did not get to choose your child, and while all the mothers she knew gave the impression of having received exactly what they would have ordered, it still seemed like a cavalier thing to do.
Despite her ideals, Laura raises Emma in much the same way as she herself was raised – private schools and summers on the family island.
Although the story is focused on Laura, it is through her relationships with Emma and Bibs that we see her character evolve. Each ‘chapter’ in the novel represents a year from 1980 to 1995 – some years pass with only a paragraph-long observation about something seemingly inconsequential, while others are detailed accounts of milestones in Laura or Emma’s lives. Much of the ‘action’ happens off the page, which strengthens Laura’s interior story.
It would have been easy for Greathead to ridicule Laura – the trust-fund princess playing at concerned citizen – yet it’s not mean-spirited or mocking. Instead, the humour comes from Laura’s own self-delusions.
Life hadn’t required Laura to navigate unknown territory on her own, and the few occasions over the years where she had taken the initiative to do so had all been very empowering.
Laura was envious of others’ accounts of struggle, which were recalled with a certain fondness.
Greathead gently reveals Laura’s sadness and that’s what gives this story interest. The author treads a fine line, avoiding self-pity but showing the emptiness in Laura’s life, a gap that Laura herself has trouble identifying.
That first morning, riding the 6 train to work, Laura felt as though she’d tapped into a sadness that was larger than her own – the collective loneliness, disappointment, and despair of all the people who’d ever ridden through the bowels of the New York City subway system. If the other passengers noticed that she was crying, they pretended not to, which Laura appreciated.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its subtlety, its deadpan humour and the fact that it stayed true to the course of life – the highs and lows (which aren’t really as high and as low as other stories would have us believe) and all the ordinary bits in between.
4/5 A winning debut.
I received my copy of Laura & Emma from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
When she wasn’t mass-producing tuna melts, Laura occupied herself with books and organization projects.