Mommie Dearest

Alice Sebold
Alice Sebold; drawing by David Levine

The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold’s second novel, is the story of a mother-daughter hate affair. The daughter in question is Helen Knightly, a forty-nine-year-old divorced mother of two who works as a nude artist’s model at a college in a depressed area in central Pennsylvania. Her eighty-eight-year-old mother, who lives nearby in the old family house, is deep into dementia but hasn’t lost her spunk. A passage of dialogue—the first words exchanged between the two women—gives a hint of the emotional weather, and Sebold’s stylized approach to depicting it:

“Mother,” I said, calling the name only I, as her sole child, had the right to call her. She looked up at me and smiled.

“Bitch,” she said.

Things go downhill from there. After her mother soils herself—“Number two!” she cries, as if she’d just won at bingo—Helen tries to clean up the mess but instead finds herself smashing a towel over the old woman’s face, gruesomely snapping her nose. “Within a few minutes,” Helen relates, “as she struggled for breath, my lifelong dream had come true.” A few hours later, so has another fantasy, when Helen goes to seek the help of a friend but instead ends up having sex with the friend’s thirty-year-old son, a motorcycle-riding stud named Hamish, in the backseat of her car. “Morality was just a security blanket that didn’t exist,” she tells herself as the compliant young hunk rips off her underwear. “All of it, what I had done and what I was doing, was not leading me perilously toward the edge of a cliff. I had already jumped.” By this point, so has the novel.

Sebold’s snappily paced, grimly funny opening chapter might have been the windup to a suburban gothic tale of what happens when ordinary murderous feelings meet real-world consequences, with a sharp crime-and-cover-up plot thrown in to boot. Instead, what follows is a sketchily plotted account of the improbable events of the next twenty-four hours, interspersed with flashbacks to Helen’s operatically traumatic childhood. Within hours of the murder, Helen’s ex-husband, a successful artist, arrives like a welcome emissary from the vaguely normal world. They haven’t spoken in years, but he comes running from California, wearing a T-shirt bearing the usefully ironic slogan “Life is good.” (“If there was a reason for our divorce,” Helen quips, “it was this in a nutshell.”) As he tries to help her cover her tracks, Helen digs deeper into memories of life with her gorgon of a mother and her sweet but distant father, who was in and out of mental hospitals until one day he finally just shot himself in the head.

In Lucky, her powerfully blunt memoir of being brutally raped as a college student, Sebold described her passage into a world divided forever after into two territories: “the safe and the not safe.” In Sebold’s novels, violence gives access to a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.