Book Briefing: Elena Ferrante, Anton Chekhov

Book Briefing: Elena Ferrante, Anton Chekhov

Samantha Hunt’s short story ‘Go, Team’ traces a series of conversations among a group of mothers after a woman goes missing in the woods during a children’s soccer game. They don’t know if the missing woman is a mother, although they wonder if she might be. But even when only suspected, motherhood is such an all-consuming identity that possibility permeates every element of their discussion. Her potential death would be a tragedy, it is implied, as “she could have been someone’s mother”.

Maintaining independence while having children can seem impossible. Penelope Mortimer’s 1958 novel, Dad went hunting illustrates this challenge by portraying a woman who, after an unwanted pregnancy, finds herself withering away under the rigid expectations of parenthood. The label makes everything else irrelevant; talent, she notes, is “as useless…as a dying limb” once you have children. Of course, moms regularly challenge this stereotype. But through the media, those who continue to embrace their talent after the birth of their children are often demonized. In the horror movie Hereditarythis demonization is literal, but the theme is also present in literature – just look The Seagullby Anton Chekhov, or Elizabeth Costelloby JM Coetzee.

Nuanced portrayals of women maintaining a sense of self apart from their children are rare, but refreshing. One such example is that of Julie Phillips The baby on the fire escape, which profiles several prominent artist-mothers and examines how they managed to balance two often opposing identities. Another is the novel by Elena Ferrante The lost girl, which Maggie Gyllenhaal recently adapted into a film. The protagonist of the work, Leda, abandoned her daughters for a period when they were young, because although she loved them deeply, she could not devote herself entirely to them to the detriment of her own personality. Because of this, Leda thinks she’s an “unnatural mother” – although readers can see that what’s really “unnatural” are the demands we place on moms.

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What we read

Peter Marlow/Magnum

“Go Team”

“Are you kidding me? This woman may be dead. She could have been someone’s mother.

📚 “Come On, Team”, by Samantha Hunt

illustration of half face covered by white picket fence

Getty; Atlantic

The calamity of unwanted motherhood

“Depriving women of the ability to choose when and if they become parents, [Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting] insinuates, is to deprive them of the ability to be or become fully human in their own right.

film still of mother, Annie Graham, of "Hereditary" at work in his artist's studio

Reid Chavis / A24

Hereditary and the monstrosity of creative moms

“Movies like Hereditary to see something threatening in the artist-mother who is too individualistic and too rigidly professional, who creates for herself and for the public while closing her family.


Getty; Atlantic

Trying to make art when the baby cries

“When a new child arrives, it’s as if two strangers have moved into your home. The first is the child. The second is yourself as a mother.

still of Leda floating on the water in "The lost girl"


The movie that understands the secret shame of motherhood

“Leda is actively testing society’s definition of a mother – she loves her daughters, but she cannot devote herself entirely to them – and for this she bears both pride and shame.”

📚 The lost girlby Elena Ferrante
🎥 The lost girldirected by Maggie Gyllenhaal

About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she reads next is Whether orby Elif Batuman.

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