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Laura Catherine Brown

Laura Catherine Brown’s second novel, Made by Mary, launched with C&R Press in June 2018. Her debut novel, Quickening, was published by Random House, and featured in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including The Bellingham Review, Monkeybicycle, Paragraphiti and Tin House; and in anthologies with Seal Press and Overlook Press. She has been awarded support from The Byrdcliffe Colony, Djerassi, Millay, Ragdale, Ucross, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She currently serves as creative committee co-chair of the Millay Colony for the Arts, and assistant fiction editor of the literary magazine, Newfound. She lives in New York City where she’s writing a third novel.

Blurbs

“Laura Catherine Brown is a gifted writer, unafraid to take risks and plunge into difficult emotional terrain. You can’t help but root for her flawed characters as they stumble through the broken world, struggling to realize their dreams. Made By Mary is a wise, tragicomic exploration of the complex ties of family, with a little bit of magic thrown in.”

– HILLARY JORDAN author of the novels Mudbound (2008) and When She Woke (2011)

“A suspenseful and surprising book filled with magic, mothers and daughters unusually entwined in a search for new life; all told in a believable voice, with precisely conveyed detail, and dialogue which conjures up a plethora of characters searching for love.”

– SHEILA KOHLER, author of Dreaming for Freud, Once We Were Sisters, and Cracks

“A wry and compassionate novel about that most inextricable of relationships—the mother-daughter bond. In Mary, a jewelry-making, pot-growing, goddess-worshipping hippie, who claims that she birthed her daughter at Woodstock, Brown has created an indelible and unlikely heroine. About our tenderest sacrifices, and our fiercest desires, Made by Mary is a generous book, and a wise one. Brown understands that, between a daughter’s debt, and a mother’s due, there is a whole territory of resentment, love, fury, devotion, and mutual incomprehension.”

– KATHERINE MIN, author of Second Hand World

“Made by Mary is a jaunty read about the way we live now. The way we get born, and reborn, and surrogately born. The way we make fun of our foibles and fads without losing sight of what is eternal and earnest: the desire to sustain the species, to love our family no matter how it came to be, no matter how it spirals into the infuriatingly silly or the inimitably sublime. To honor the mysteries of the universe even as we are imperfect in understanding them, yet always always making efforts in that direction, hilariously, devoutly, with heart, and without cease.”

– ANTONYA NELSON, author of Funny Once, Nothing Right, and Bound

“Excellent with dope deals, lovers lesbian and otherwise, surrogate motherhood and the unforgettable character of crystal-toting, never-grow-up Mary, Laura Catherine Brown’s Made By Mary is deeply moving. The repercussions of Woodstock have never been so wisely and vividly examined, nor the spectacle of maternal love sonogramed so well between generations.”

– TERESE SVOBODA, author of Tin God and Bohemian Girl, and Pirate Talk or Mermalade

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Featured Book

Made by Mary

Sins of the Mothers

07/23/19

There is no happy ending to Laura Catherine Brown’s second and latest novel, Made By Mary, but rather an unsettling continuation after losses and distorted perceptions. This may not be readily apparent, as readers may sigh at the inevitable disappointments but assume triumphs in what remains and rises from the ashes of misplaced loyalties and intentions. We must decide if what is left augurs any hope or just a perpetuation of the misguided lineage of generations doomed to repeat mistakes and subsequent tragedies. Brown explores the classic dual desire to cling to the assumed support and security of our parents, particularly our mothers, and the need to separate and to become our own person in an ancient, perplexing conflict. Are there simply inherent flaws in the human condition that preclude us from escaping the entrapment of expectations and mutual, unhealthy dependencies? Or can we make conscious assessments and choices? Brown asks us to examine critical aspects of the mother/daughter relationship. The guilt and the responsibilities flow in both directions. She often treats serious situations, indeed life and death situations, with a subtle, perhaps even black humor. It stirs a hesitant smile within us, but there’s no hearty laughter in her astute observances of the foibles and problems that result from our inability to face truths and heal our wounds. These characters hold onto one another like pieces of a splintering life raft, and the consequences are frequently devastating.

Mary, a child of Woodstock and the sixties hippie generation, is mother to Annapurna Peace Moonlight, or Ann, as she prefers to call herself. Ann resists Mary’s values and influence every chance she gets. She responds to Mary’s open and often careless approach to life with strict, repressed attitudes and accusatory postures, much as Mary’s carefree life of avoidance responded to her own mother’s strict, repressive personality. Ann is struggling with her identity and sees motherhood as the answer to finding her value and her place in the world much as Mary once did. Born without a uterus, Ann already feels less of a woman and desperately wants a child. Right from the opening paragraph we see who she is, a pre-school teacher who merges with her little charges “…like crayons melting together in the sun.” The solace she assumes at the pre-school mirrors a desire to capture her own lost childhood. She’s out of touch with her deeper self and any accurate barometer of her own worth. Ann is a talented, gifted musician, but this is insufficient to satisfy her as she continues to measure her value against others and distorted, unrealistic standards. In one scene, Ann looks at her dog, McKenna, thinking to herself that his unconditional devotion is not enough, although “…his gaze is pure love.” It might be a subtler point, but it asks us to examine how we view love, what is “enough,” and if it matters where that love comes from. Is love only justified if we can wrest it from those who are unable to give it or are not even born yet?

Ann is married to Joel Solcombe, a musician and owner of his own construction company, who is struggling financially while building their dream house in upstate Sullivan County, New York. He and Ann are living in a trailer on the property until the house is completed. They both play in a band at local establishments, which is where they seem to derive most of their personal and creative satisfaction. Joel and Ann compose music together, which is symbolic of their true ability for mutual creation. Why wasn’t this inspired expression enough for them individually and in union with one another? Why was having children more of an affirmation of their creativity and existence?

Joel has issues with his own mother, Betty, a chain smoking, mean spirited woman, whose anger at her life and being abandoned by her husband is put upon her son, while she pins small remnants of hope on the prospect of having a grandchild. We learn that, “She would not permit Joel to live in ignorance of her unhappiness.” Joel vacillates between hatred and distain for his mother and trying to coddle up to any tidbit of emotion or concern she might offer. These feelings transfer to Ann in his desire to please her by doing anything and everything to help them achieve parenthood. Joel feels “duty-bound to Betty,” which causes him to suppress any negative feelings he has toward her and her behavior. We see how this translates into his relationship with his wife when he observes that Ann’s “contempt added to her beauty,” emphasizing how we are attracted to what we have not healed.

Joel is recognized as a talented musician and band leader but admits he hasn’t played in a while since their bass player had a child. We are shown early in the story that we sacrifice so much of our lives when we become parents. The questions Brown asks us to consider are deeply probative. How much are we meant to forfeit of our lives just to bring in another who will feel indebted to do the same? Are we simply fostering a lineage of obligation for others to fulfill us? What are our true motivations in becoming parents?

After a disastrous attempt at taking in a pregnant teenager, Jessica, with the anticipation of adopting her child, Joel and Ann find themselves embroiled in an in vitro surrogate mother situation with Mary. At age fifty and already overweight, Mary sees this as an opportunity to win Ann’s love and prove herself as a mother. She has no consideration for her own health and wellbeing in a desperate mission to prove her worth. Her litany of self-absorbed lovers, both male and female, illustrate her inability to take care of herself, and to accept her talents as a creative person in her own right. Mary feels it’s better to receive comfort from “someone who hurts you” rather than receive none at all.

It is not enough for Joel and Ann to express themselves as musicians and in their love for one another, and it is not enough for Mary to accept herself and her own gifts as a jewelry designer. In fact, she designs braided, intertwining wedding rings for Ann and Joel along with one for herself “…as if the three of them were married.” Here we see a prime example of misappropriation and intrusive interactions in co-dependent relationships. When Joel first meets Ann, he thinks he has finally found “…someone I can make happy.” He fails to realize that we are responsible for our own happiness. We can share that with someone else, but we can never make someone else happy. Huge resentments build among all the characters when they feel they are sacrificing themselves for others and are not fully appreciated for playing the role of victim in order to gain another’s love and attention. In their desperate struggles, they fail to see that this only leads to distain and anger from those whose approval they seek. It never ends well when we ingratiate ourselves to others by capitulating to their wants and desires at the expense of our own. We earn their respect and love when we honor ourselves as separate individuals with our own needs and aspirations. This may not coincide with accepted standards or a majority consensus, which is why we may need to leave those who do not accept us for who we are.

As Brown extends these issues in a larger context, she asks us to consider societal assumptions and traditions. Throughout the story we get a sense of what is expected or even obligatory from women: to revere our maternal forebears and to relish becoming mothers. Women who are unable to have children are pitied, and others become stigmatized for not wanting children at all. In order to have a baby, Ann works against all her natural instincts. She feels that “So much of her life occurred beyond her control.” That is because she has willingly relinquished control without recognizing it. Interestingly, in a book all about motherhood, no one seems particularly “motherly.” Mary refers to the children of her friend, America’s daughter Cassidy, as “rug rats,” Jessica states, “I hate kids,” and Cassidy tells Jessica that at least she “…has the wisdom to give them up.” Then later on Cassidy cries about America never loving her, and we see the way she treats her own daughter, Sky, when she observes Sky’s attempts at affection by stating, “It’s not love, it’s a survival tactic,” and that her own mother never loved anyone, “not even herself.” But they remain tethered to hopes of connection, just as dying soldiers do on the battlefield, who can’t escape that instinctual need to cry out for their mothers, as we do so often in desperate and needy instances. Jessica cries out for her mother during labor, not for Ann who has taken care of her for nine months. Mary does the same while she is in labor. Jessica’s mother rejects her, yet she shows up at the hospital for the birth and claims her daughter and her grandchild.

Ann has an unrealistic, dreamlike vision of what motherhood will be, how she’ll be different from all the others, especially Mary. Her vision of a baby becomes her personal salvation and a barometer of her worth. Yet how can she expect to love another when she is constantly so critical of herself? This is where transference of such feelings becomes dangerous and distorted. These characters live in the illusion that their will can manifest their desires. Ann sees herself as being able to “bend reality to her will” and convinces herself she is not afraid. This is deep denial, as we see nothing but fear in all of these characters. What they lack is an acceptance that we do live in a fearful and precarious world. This creates an inability to see oneself clearly and to connect with reality. It is why Mary feels better about herself “in fragments.” Most often the characters reinforce their illusions through the use of alcohol, drugs, and elaborate demonstrations that are supposed to invoke the powers of the mystical in finding answers. In another misguided instance, Ann thinks she has “lost her vigilance against misfortune,” and this undermines and jinxes her happiness. She gives away her power once again to a perceived outside force. These modalities offer escape instead of a grounding in reality. In a moment of lucidity, Ann sees beauty in simple things around her and asks herself, “You’re alive…isn’t that enough?” Unfortunately, she loses the opportunity to go deeper into that realization.

There’s a lot of New Age rituals, symbolism, and artifacts that strive to give meaning and supernatural credence to decisions and actions taken by the characters. There are communal conjuring circles, ceremonial offerings, and a lot of smoke and mirrors. Instead of relying on their own intuition to guide their paths, they seek affirmation in external signs, interpreting circumstances through the prism of their hopes and desires rather than being grounded in truth. Instead of offering clarity, it clouds their vision, and offers misguided confirmation of their choices. There’s a menstrual party that comes across as something falsely celebratory, as opposed to the mutual comfort of this monthly ritual as detailed so beautifully in Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent.” There is a forced imposition of frantic festivities without acknowledging the mixed emotions and discomfort that accompany so much of the human condition. The hippie, New Age dictums, and actions of Mary and her cohorts seem disingenuous and desperate rather than affirmative. But all the spiritual babble, tokens, and totems never offer true solace or hide the fears that they strive to assuage so ardently. The characters lie and deceive one another time and again, something a symbolic piece of jewelry or sacred chant can’t mitigate. They can’t replace lost dreams, wishful thinking, or revisionist history, all places where these characters reside. Their memories are revised and cloudy. Joel recalls loving parents leaning over his bed when he was a child, an example of the supposed halcyon days we spend lifetimes trying to recreate when they actually never existed. It becomes “a memory of a memory.” But he continues to ask himself why he can “access the past so easily but never the future?” Mary’s insistence that Ann was born at Woodstock during the famous festival of the sixties is an attempt to escalate her own importance and infuse the birth with meaning. But it’s a lie. She knows it and Ann knows it. But she would rather live in a lie than accept the truth, and it destroys her life.

The tragic losses of this story illustrate the very selfish and misguided reasons so many people seek parenthood. So much of it is the result of what they never received from their own parents and imagine that, somehow, they’ll be able to correct and recover this in a child of their own. But without the necessary introspection and examination of their actions and desires, it begs a critical question: how many lives must be sacrificed to prove that another one has value? Of course, we can see how this plays out on a macro scale in global conflicts, battlefields, and even the horrors of genocide, just as it does on a micro level in our own private interactions and our interior landscapes.

Perhaps the book’s title gives us some of the best insights into its message. Made by Mary suggests something manufactured and less than organic. Mary feels she has “made” Ann and shouts, “…I can make another you,” as if birthing another human being will give her a second chance to correct mistakes that she has made with Ann. As Brown observes of Mary, “Genetically unable to back away from perceived disapproval, she filled it with herself.” She is in a constant mode of compensation for what she sees as her own shortcomings. This is when she resorts to magical potions and incantations in desperate attempts to fix things. We learn early on that Mary’s motives for carrying Ann’s baby are less than altruistic when she sees it as an opportunity to promote her jewelry business and to get attention.

As Ann succumbs more steadily throughout the story into Mary’s world of external, spiritual validations, her actions simply mirror her desire to align with her mother’s illusionary world. Ann sees moving forward as choosing “love and life, as Mary had done.” But it is difficult to see how Mary accomplished this. She never chose to carry Ann’s baby out of love but rather to affirm her value to Ann. And she didn’t choose life but sacrificed it.

Brown names sections of the book for the four elements: Earth, Air, Water, and Fire that span the years 1999 to 2000 and concludes with the section Spirit 2000. The elements are meant to help us locate our strengths and weaknesses in order to address them. Air represents intellect and intentions, earth links us to family and roots and is a grounding force, fire represents transformation and inner strength, and water is emotional release and intuitive connection. We don’t see any of these characters as particularly grounded and their mental capacities are distorted and unclear. There are moments of emotional release, but they don’t actually lead to intuitive power. The fire they experience is ultimately less than transformative. But perhaps this is Brown’s point, to show us what we miss when we choose not to see.

Made by Mary gives us tremendous insights not only into the feminine and maternal journeys but into human nature as a whole. It asks us to examine what we sacrifice for others and why; how we derail our own train by trying to hitch it to another. She asks us to examine the impetus behind our desire to create another human being when we feel our own humanity is insufficient. What does it mean to give life? To have life inside of you? Do we have no life if we do not bring another one into this world? What does it mean to live one’s own life? These are the critical questions she asks us to consider in a story that sometimes appears deceptively lighthearted on the surface. There’s a fine, delicate equivalence between outrageous humor and very serious subject matter. For the most part, Brown is successful in achieving that balance. Language is sometimes raw but is evocative and appropriately representative of certain situations. Her astute observations give depth and clarity about the misguided ways in which we interpret our own lives and sacrifice them at the altar of external acceptance and norms.

Brown shows us clearly that our fears of being forgotten and misunderstood, and our denial of the realities of death, are intense motivations behind our desire to procreate, and to live on through something we believe we have created. In truth, each soul has its own journey, and we are merely vessels in bringing them forth into the world. Creativity is not passed on through another but is an expression of the passion in each individual spirit. The consequences for characters in this story shows us that the burden of our own worth should never be put upon another. Whether we adapt or rebel, it’s only two sides of the same coin. We are still not individuals living in our own bodies and owning our own truth. We go back and forth between rejection and craving attachment. We become children again, the child inside of us who was raised deficiently and still seeks connection and approval. At times we might find it difficult to feel compassion for these characters. We become exasperated with their lack of self-reflection and their ability to deflect truth and honesty. If this angers us, it’s because we see these flaws in ourselves, which means Brown has been successful in prompting us to identify them in a very personal way.

If the reader isn’t mindful, the desire to find redemption in the losses suffered by the characters will overshadow the more crucial messages of the story. Brown has done a fine job in elucidating very pivotal issues if the reader mines the gold within. What happens when we choose family, or any other option, over truth? As Ann faces the future with her own daughter, we are left to decide what lessons she will take with her, or if she is doomed to repeat legacies of dysfunction. Rather than wrapping up her story in a neat package, Brown wisely leaves us with that question. Perhaps, the epigraph by W.B. Yeats at the beginning of the book sums it up most aptly: A pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love.

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