Mystery & Mortality #essays by Paula Bomer

Content Warning: essays about suicide, grief, and dementia.

Paula Bomer caught my eye circa 2011 when I read her first collection, Baby and Other Stories. The titular story was a dark satire about a woman who plans out her life — prestigious job, proper boyfriend, cajole him into marriage, house in NYC, quit the prestigious job, and then GET PREGNANT. She has a trust fund and a uterus, so her power knows no bounds in her sham of a marriage. A baby girl will be best, one she can dress and train and who will love her mommy devoutly. Except she has a baby boy. A hideous not-a-girl boy. And all goes wacky.

baby

I immediately reached out to Bomer via Facebook. I learned that she lives in NYC, but was born and raised not far from where I currently live. At one point, she visited home and we met up for lunch.

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Since then, I’ve also read Nine Months, another look at motherhood. In this novel, a woman is happy that her two children are finally more independent and out of diapers when she learns she’s pregnant. Will her marriage survive a baby that isn’t wanted, even one created in such a union? The narrator runs away — for almost nine months.

nine months.jpg

A second collection, Inside Madeleine, I own but haven’t read. I’ve been told it’s also “not nice” to children, but skews toward not nice to teens. It’s easy to read these synopses and think Bomer must hate children. But from Facebook I know she is a devoted mom who loves her college-bound sons more than anything in the world. Not that she has to. Not that any woman must be validated based on her reaction to children. But still. It comes up.

inside madeleine

Mystery and Mortality (Publishing Genius Press, 2017) is completely different. The sub-title is “essays on the sad, short gift of life.” Each essay ties in to “mystery” or “mortality” in some way, and the book starts off powerfully. Bomer describes her challenging relationship with her mother, who now has dementia. She admits she was “trouble” when she was a teen, but her mother was unusually competitive:

In boarding school, I acted in plays. When I came home, [my mother] made me come watch her act in a play at Notre Dame, where she’d gotten her masters in psychology. When I lived in Spain for a year, to learn a language she didn’t know — she spoke German, English, Italian, and French — she got a Cuban woman to live in my former room and teach her Spanish. When I started graduate school for writing, she sent me her newly written memoir.

The examples demonstrate a raging battle between mother and daughter. But now that the mother has dementia, Bomer must reevaluate all of her “regret.” It’s an honest look at herself that opens Bomer emotionally.

mystery and mortality

“My Mother’s Dementia” is the 1st essay. The last is about her father’s suicide. Again, she’s more honest about her thoughts and behaviors than most authors are willing to share. She admits:

After my father’s suicide, after I’d alienated my friends, I felt I lived in a bubble. My husband became a sponge for me, the person who tried to keep me alive. Often I would crawl the walls, screaming out for my father, while he held me. This happened almost nightly for some time.

The words “crawled” and “screaming” are what stand out to me, two brutal choices that would cut open anyone and expose their most personal moments.

In between these personal essays are Bomer’s analysis and comments on other author’s stories. In contrast, they were so impersonal that I kept reading to see when I would get back to Bomer’s voice. In a few essays, it is impossible to find that voice, as she quoted and summarized and paraphrased stories that stuck out to her, stories that included the words “mystery” or “mortality.” One essay titled “Letter From Austria: Peter Handke’s Sorrow and My Own” appeared to approach Bomer’s sorrow in a roundabout way through Handke. I wrote in the margins, “Can Bomer not bear to write her own sorrow, or does she feel Handke did it first and better?” The distance between Bomer and her reader is palpable.

A few essays contained Bomer’s questions, reminding the reader she’s there behind the keyboard. In “Brian Allen Carr’s Short Bus and Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” Bomer clearly enters a conversation when she adds:

I’m always alarmed when people write disparagingly about characters not likable, about writers looking down on their characters, about characters not being worthy of compassion. I often think, what world do these people live in? Can my world, and the world of so many people I’ve come to know in my 44 years on this earth, be that different than others’? I think not.

This observation connected me back to Bomer, an author who has rattled so many cages with her fiction, and gave me insight into her own reading experiences. In those essays when she is noticeably absent, I missed her. At the end of the day, when I think “essay” from a fiction writer, I don’t think literary criticisms. Pick it up with the right mindset, and you should be good to go.

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22 thoughts on “Mystery & Mortality #essays by Paula Bomer

  1. More than the book you’ve just read, her other books sound fascinating… the idea that not all women are meant to be mothers, or that not all women want their babies or children. Maybe because I can’t relate, or maybe because it bothers me that we’re not open enough to accept that not all women are maternal… I don’t know… but it’s interesting to me. And I think it’s brave to write about. We tend to put the ideas we read in a book on the author that wrote them.
    Great post, Melanie! And I love the pic.

    P.S. I’ve never heard of a mother who is so competitive with her daughter – what must that have been like?!

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  2. This sounds really interesting. I’m always wary of books that address suicide but it sounds like the other essays in this book would be very much up my street. I’d never heard of it before so thank you for introducing it to me!

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  3. I agree with Ff, it does seem a bit jarring that she would include such PERSONAL essays on one hand, and then others about authors and their work. Her older books about motherhood sound really interesting too, I really enjoy reading about other mom experiences, it always makes me feel so normal!

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  4. Her other works immediately caught my attention upon reading your review. Motherhood is like a looming expectation placed on women and when you’re not eager to start a family, you’re either met with disbelief or the predictable line “you’ll change your mind.” And there’s really no room for mothers who struggle with parenting to voice their unhappiness. Mothers always have to be nurturing and it’s almost impossible for them to be selfish in anyway and not immediately be met with criticism. Bit of a tangent from what you wrote, but your words in the beginning had me thinking.

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  5. Like the others, I wonder what made her include such impersonal material when so much of her writing is so intensely personal. Embarrassingly personal really. I wonder what made the mother so competitive with the daughter, but these are real people, so although the author raises these questions, to me it doesn’t seem possible to speculate about them.

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  6. What I appreciate the most about this review is how you introduce us to Bomer’s other works first to give us an idea of how different this collection is compared to her previous works. That perspective is important for us as your readers to understand your review.

    Wow. It sounds like Bomer has gone through some hardship in her life. I’m not surprised that this most recent collection places distance between the readers and the author. Do you think this is intentional? Also, when you picked this book up, did you expect to find literary criticism? What are your thoughts on how this literary criticism relates to Bomer dealing with her emotions? Any of these stories she referenced you flagged to read the original?

    I enjoy reading essay collections– both fiction and non-fiction. While I am left at the end of this review with more questions than answer, I think that Bomer’s writing still appeals to me. I certainly want to check out Baby & Other Stories. I’ll keep an eye out for her work!

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    1. It’s entirely possible that the author knowingly didn’t go to some really hard places, and thinking from a heartfelt place, I can see why she wouldn’t want to. Or, it’s possible she wanted to explore grief through two words, “mystery” and “mortality” and did exactly what she set out to do. I don’t pretend to know her intentions or feelings, but I do know she’s a person who feels a lot, and I wish there were more people like her.

      I haven’t read many of the stories she criticizes, though I’ve read lots of Flannery O’Connor, whom Bomer examines/mentions a few times. The works are mostly obscure to me.

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      1. I completely understand what you mean by wishing there were more people in the world who felt a lot. I sometimes wonder if we teach our children to supress their feelings because of how our society functions.

        Do you feel like your lack of familiarity with the texts Bomer criticized affected your enjoyment of the book at all?

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  7. Fascinating, and I agree with Jackie, you situating this current read within the context of her other works was a great framing device for the post. I am interested in her fiction about motherhood, “warped” as it may be. Motherhood was such an earth-shaking event for my sense of self and my consciousness… we give very little room for mothers to be anything other than thrilled immedately after the birth of a child. Great review! And how cool that you got to meet the author.

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