Book Review: The Perfect Mother by Nina Darnton

by Rebekah Benoit

20893341Every mom strives to be the perfect mother. Some of us, especially those of us who have more than one child or whose children have grown up and started families of their own, have come to the realization that the notion of a perfect mother is really a contradiction in terms. I came to this realization fairly early on in my mothering career, and it was equal parts disappointing and liberating: every mom makes mistakes. Nobody is perfect. Children don’t come with an instruction manual, and no matter how many books you read or Dr. Phil episodes you might watch about how to best parent your own children, you will make mistakes. And that’s okay.
For those moms who come to this eventual realization later on (and I do believe that all moms learn this particular hard lesson at some point or another), motherhood can be a tough gig. As a teacher and as a mom, I’ve seen these supermoms doing their thing, stressed to the max as they attempt to do everything for their children from negotiating the complex hierarchies of preschool popularity contests to renting limos for their child’s grade 6 farewell ceremony. They mean well, they really do, but I have to wonder if the battle to be the perfect mom in every respect might eventually do their children more harm than good.
This is the question author Nina Darnton explores in The Perfect Mother, a novel loosely based on a real-life court drama of Amanda Knox, a young American accused of murder in Italy who spent years in jail before eventually being exonerated.
Jennifer Lewis has devoted her life to being the perfect mother. Mom to three, her eldest daughter Emma is perhaps Jennifer’s proudest accomplishment. A student at a prestigious ivy-league university, Emma is studying abroad in Spain.
When the telephone rings in the middle of the night, Jennifer’s idyllic world is shattered. Her perfect daughter, the girl who has always gotten straight-As and never failed to make her parents proud, is calling from a Spanish jail, where she has been taken after being arrested for the brutal murder of a fellow student. Jennifer immediately drops everything and rushes to Spain, convinced the whole nightmare must be a big mistake – how could Emma have been involved in anything like this?
On the advice of Emma’s counsel, Jennifer hires a private investigator to prove that Emma had nothing to do with the murder of the bright, apparently likeable young man. Emma’s story certainly seems to paint her as an innocent victim who has been falsely accused. She claims that the murder victim, a stranger to her, broke into her apartment and attempted to rape her, and was killed by a good Samaritan who heard the scuffle, stabbed the would-be rapist and fled.
But as Jennifer and Roberto, the private investigator, begin digging into Emma’s story, disturbing discrepancies and details of her life begin to arise. Emma’s life in Spain is a far cry from the picture of the hardworking innocent student that Emma has painted for her parents. Jennifer discovers that her daughter has been living in a slum with a boyfriend who might possibly be a drug dealer. Worse, the police uncover evidence that Emma is definitely lying about some aspects of her story, if not all of it.
As her mental picture of her perfect daughter unravels piece by piece, Jennifer is confronted by a completely different Emma than the one she knows. Her daughter is defiant and rude, unwilling to work with the police or tell the truth about what really happened. Emma’s supporters, including her corporate lawyer father Mark, begin to question the character of the girl they thought they knew, and soon only Jennifer remains firmly on Emma’s side, determined to defend her child. But how far should a good mother go to protect her daughter? As the evidence against Emma stacks up, Jennifer beings to wonder if she isn’t helping her daughter get away with murder.
This book dug into the concept of the perfect mother, and how far many of us will go to help our children succeed. At what point does the quest to be the perfect mother become a parent living vicariously through their children’s successes? Does helping your child overcome every obstacle and challenge have the potential to create a monster, a self-involved narcissist who has no accountability for their own actions? I really loved how this novel explored these ideas, questions that have real weight considering the world we live in where “helicopter moms” are a very real phenomenon.
I did find Darnton’s writing a little stiff and her characters a bit wooden and one-dimensional at times, but the pacing of the book, the carefully spun-out suspense and the emotional depth of the story easily overcame these flaws. Overall, it’s a good suspenseful read which will make you question the concept of the perfect parent.

4 teacups