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In Victoria Redel's mesmerizing first novel, the question of what happens when a mother loves her child too much is deeply and darkly explored. Left with a small fortune by her parents and the cryptic advice, "it would do to find a passion," Redel's narrator sets out to become a mother—a task she feels she can be adequately passionate about. She conceives her son Paul through a loveless one-night stand, surrounds him with a wonderful, magical world for two—a world filled with books, music, endless games, and ...

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In Victoria Redel's mesmerizing first novel, the question of what happens when a mother loves her child too much is deeply and darkly explored. Left with a small fortune by her parents and the cryptic advice, "it would do to find a passion," Redel's narrator sets out to become a mother—a task she feels she can be adequately passionate about. She conceives her son Paul through a loveless one-night stand, surrounds him with a wonderful, magical world for two—a world filled with books, music, endless games, and bottomless devotion—and calls him pet names like Birdie, Cookie, Puppy, and Loverboy. She wonders, "Has ever a mother loved a child more?" But as life outside their lace curtains begins to beckon the school-age Paul, his mother's efforts to keep him content in their small world become increasingly frantic and ultimately extreme by all definitions.
In this exquisite debut novel, Victoria Redel takes us deep into the mind of a very singular mother, exposing the dangerously whisper-thin line between selfless and selfish motivation that exists in all types of devotion.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A first novel that explores a mother's obsession, in prose at once lyrical and chillingly realistic."—Elle
"A spare and stunning debut whose lean, episodic style seems perfectly adapted to its subject matter . . . Perfect."—San Francisco Chronicle
"Cryptic . . . authoritative and vast-full of suspense, emotional urgency, and shimmering imagery."—The Village Voice

Los Angeles Times Book Review
Redel is one of the most talented scary writers to come out of musty old Manhattan in the last few decades. She¹s a writer with her fists clenched so tightly that her palms must bleed, and when she opens her fist, suddenly, in front of the reader, powerful, hurtful truths come flying out. Redel is pure courage, facing squarely, almost formally, simple ferocious ideas: Mothers are evil and human; mothers are suffocating and loving; stupid bureaucrats are wrecking humanity; each person is weirdly different and fascinating; language doesn¹t have to be what you say it should be. All this and story too.
Publishers Weekly
In Redel¹s controlled and convincing tale of a mother¹s obsession for her child, the first-person narrator endangers the life of her grade-school son, then asks rhetorically, "Has a mother ever loved a child more?" It is a disturbing question, since the entire novel proves to be the narrator¹s heartfelt demonstration of her single-minded devotion to the raising of her son, Paul. Beautifully succinct, lyrically composed chapters give occasionally disturbing glimpses of the narrator gravely ill in a hospital room, but not until the end of the novel does the reader become chillingly aware of how she has resisted the intrusion of the real world. Painting a convincing portrait of her complex and surprising sympathetic narrator, Redel (Where the Road Bottoms Out) makes it possible to empathize with the woman¹s overwhelming love for her son: the novel succeeds because the reader cannot condemn her.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Isn¹t a boy¹s best friend always his mother? But what if Mom¹s existence revolves exclusively around the child? In Loverboy, debut novelist Victoria Redel takes maternal love to bizarre, harrowing extremes.

Loverboy is stunningly fine. No Novel has rattled me this much since Judith Rossner¹s Looking for Mr. Goodbar. More Redel, please, and soon.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Redel's controlled and convincing tale of a mother's obsession for her child, the first-person narrator endangers the life of her grade-school son, then asks rhetorically, "Has a mother ever loved a child more?" It is a disturbing question, since the entire novel proves to be the narrator's heartfelt demonstration of her single-minded devotion to the raising of her son, Paul. Conceived anonymously ("I never wanted a house and I never wanted a husband," remarks the narrator, who remains nameless and without a definite address), Paul is his mother's central passion; her own perilously solipsistic parents died in a suicide pact. Slavish in her attention to her son, she does not use contractions because they are lazy and calls him by anything (Loverboy, Babydoll) but his name because she cannot bear for him to join the ranks of the ordinary, school-taught drones. Beautifully succinct, lyrically composed chapters give occasionally disturbing glimpses of the narrator gravely ill in a hospital room, but not until the end of the novel does the reader become chillingly aware of how she has resisted the intrusion of the real world. Hints of her obsessive possessiveness crop up strategically: she secretly euthanatizes a sick baby bird they have found so that her son doesn't have to see it die; she lies about doctor appointments in order to take the boy out of school and off on magical junkets together. Painting a convincing portrait of her complex and surprisingly sympathetic narrator, Redel (Where the Road Bottoms Out) makes it possible to empathize with the woman's overwhelming love for her son: the novel succeeds because the reader cannot condemn her. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"There is no falling in love like falling in love with a child," the anonymous narrator of Redel's first novel rhapsodizes. The daughter of solipsistic parents who killed themselves in a suicide pact, she takes the only bit of advice that they ever gave her ("It would do well to find a passion") and pursues single motherhood with disturbing aplomb. Paul, whom she calls "Loverboy" and "Babydoll," is the result of several one-night stands, and everything is magical between them until Paul starts to take an interest in the real world. When Paul leaves his mother for school and other children, she haunts the playground and makes up visits to the doctor to pull him out of school early. Redel, author of the story collection Where the Road Bottoms Out, writes like an angel about the darkest edge of obsession. This debut is simply excellent. Highly recommended. [Quality Paperback Book Club dual selection.] David Keymer, California State Univ., Stanislaus Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Redel's first novel (after Where the Road Bottoms Out, stories, 1995) strains long in an extremely narrow swath of the psychological spectrum-with results that belabor the tale remorselessly but just don't become convincing or moving. The narrator, a young woman, was raised as a precociously brilliant only child by parents who seemed invariably more involved with one another than they were with her, no matter how hard she strove for their attention. After their death, she is left with enough money so that there's no need for her to work-though her mother has left her with the advice that she should find a "passion." And that passion? Well, it becomes getting pregnant-which she finally manages to do after picking up so very many men for one-night stands that it's fair to say they become a blur. Success comes at last, however, and she gives birth to baby Paul, with whom she becomes intensely, overpoweringly, neurotically in love (the book's title is one of her plentiful love-names for him). He's ready for kindergarten as the main action opens, but his mother keeps him at home for schooling, convinced that in keeping him away from regular school she's "saving [her] son from the ordinary." Well, maybe: she listens to Beethoven with him, sees van Gogh, explores nature, all true; but she also forbids the use of contractions, since they show "sloppy disrespect for the beauty of each word"-and, one might add, make her sound crazy. And thus things go, her possessiveness all the more manic, neurotic-and then psychotic-as Paul begs and begs to be allowed to go to school. And go to school he does-though mom, by now weirder than ever, has a plan that will make everything turn out just perfectly.Apsychological novel with so few notes in its chords-so thin-that the reader can't feel much for anyone in it, woman or boy. Quality Paperback Book Club main selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156007245
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/1/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 226
  • Sales rank: 1,499,040
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Meet the Author

Victoria Redel has published a book of short fiction, Where the Road Bottoms Out, as well as a prize-winning collection of poetry, Already the World. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College and in the undergraduate and graduate writing programs at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Did I Call Him?

After he had been alive exactly nine months, I watched him in his twitching, clutchy infant sleep. "Now you have been theirs," I thought, his hand bunching around my finger, "for as long as you were safe inside and only mine."

Now I wake and think I hear him speaking to me, the musical insistence at the edge of his words.

    "I am here," I try to say, but then I open my eyes and see people, too many people in this white room. And none of them is him.

    Someone leans in over me, "She's trying to speak."

    They parade in by twos and fours. Or, they enter alone, pause stiff-legged at the door. There is one with a blue tattoo spiraling up her freckled arm, an inked tail snaked under her white uniform. There is one who carries papers. One with a sterile cloth. Others I barely see, or see only pieces of them, bulky calves, a brown hand fumbling with a knob. I see a scar quarter mooned on a brown cheek. Clipboards. How much deprivation has been sustained? they wonder. They point. The hippocampus has been involved. They worry over my basal ganglia. They calculate my damage. Has there been paralysis, a visual fixation?

    Many Clipboards scuff in and out of the room.

    I am attached. Things drip and measure, machines pump, clean my blood, regulate air, trying to bring me all the way back to life.

    "Expect seizures," says a White Coat going out the door.

    In comes the doctor. In comes the nurse. In comes the lady with thealligatorpurse.

    I hear him, somewhere, clapping and singing. I try to join his patty-cake.

    "Hey! Quick! She's calling for the nurse," someone says.

    But I am gone. Past the Clipboards. Swerve past the orderlies. Back to find wherever he is, lost on our trip, trying to find his way to me, his mother.

Yes, I named him Paul, but until he insisted, I never called him Paul.

    I called him Pussycat and Sweetheart and Button and Sweetiepie and Sweetpea and Honeypie and Cutie and Babydoll and Sprinkle and Kiddo and Buck. I called him Cookie and Bear and Angel and Gooseboy and Ace and Spunk and Rabbit. I called him Pablo and Pablito. I called him Lovey and Love.

    But most of the time I just called him Loverboy.

    "Loverboy," I said when he was little, his mouth just a perfect tiny pucker, "You, Loverboy, are the loveliest thing on this earth."

    What if he had not said it, not said that night without so much as a glance up at me from where he stacked his Legos, "Call me Paul." We might have just stayed there, inside our house with its milky, early evening light.

    We might have locked the door and called it a holiday.

    We might have snuggled on the couch just as Sybil and Marty taught me to do.

    I gave everyone all the chances I could to give him back to me.

    I would not have pressed on down the stairs into the garage.

Let me start with his teeth.

    First there was the fretting agony of the first teeth coming in. Nights rubbing analgesics, an ice pack to press against his raw baby gums, a finger dipped in brandy, anything it took to stop the desperate bleating. Of course, there is always a mother who claims that for her baby it was uneventful. No spiking fever. No crankiness for her child, "Heavens," she wrinkles her nose, "no runny bowels."

    But I was not that mother.

    It was for my boy an agony.

    Nothing is uneventful.

    And then, just a few years later—hardly any time at all—the tooth falls out. And the child, look at him, ready for big teeth, he tries to speed it up. All that twisting, that horrible pressing, rocking, playing the tongue against the little chiclet, working the tip into the crevasses, feeling, perhaps, the point of the incoming tooth. Hours with fingers in the mouth. The constant wobbling of the tooth. As if a reward, a coin beneath the pillow, a measly token from a night fairy, could measure the agony of bone growing through bone.

    But he could not remember that.

    No, for my Pablito it was a delight, this promise of something grown-up, his permanent teeth.

    It did not upset me. It broke my heart.

I am barely breathing now. I am almost there, far away, safe, with him. The IV, a vein of blind turns. My body rolls, a slow-motion spin toward the smash of light. I veer, my heart skids and the machine snaps on.

    But what are they doing here? The aqua woman with messy kisses, none for the girl-child, all for the man, for this child's father who opens the front door each night and swings the mother, freshly showered, up in his arms, saying, "Sybil, I could not bear to be away from you another moment."

    No other mothers now.

    Not that non-mother, my mother, Sybil, and not these neighborhood mothers scolding, "No baby-sitter? Come on, don't you ever get a minute away from that child?" No fathers. Not even the one that, despite myself, I remember sometimes when I am holding my son, touching his sweep of black hair, the leafy night of forested places on his body.

    No, only the child. My child.

    It would do well to find a passion, Sybil said when she thought to dispense some motherly advice.

    What I needed in the end was only to love the child.

Afternoons, when he was still little, I mounted him in a child's pack and with him riding high against my back, I walked. Out of our neighborhood, into the city where there were streets where shirts were hung on frayed lines between freight buildings. All the time I talked to him. Laurel tree. Bench. Shop. Wheel. Brick. I taught him the names of what we saw. Once, remarkably, on a narrow city block, we saw the carcass of a deer hanging by a rope from a window. More words. There was a word for everything. Even words invented for the pleasure of sound. We never got lost, we got smoshkabibbled. There were afternoons we friddled. As though we were the first, my darling and I, naming our very own world into being. We were gods then, together, those afternoons.

    Later, when he could walk, he walked next to me. Hours walking, especially in rain, walking on puddled streets. "It is only water," I laughed. The few people we passed were hunched under umbrellas or had coats yanked pitifully over their turtled heads. For us there were never umbrellas. As if rain was something from which gods and heroes needed protection!

    We waited under a railway trestle. A sudden waterfall cascaded over the sawed-off ends of the metal ties. We stepped out into the rain. While everyone else crowded under shop awnings, we skipped from one restaurant to the next, ordering a steaming bowl of noodle soup, a cup of warm almond milk. Then we cut holes in plastic bags and frogaciously jumped puddles all our way home.

    Or we walked in a November mist, watched golden light brighten houses where we saw women in quilted mitts opening oven doors.

Mostly here, I hear women. Women talking, the cluck of their calibrated tongues. "Can she hear us?" "Look at this chart." The poke and probe of fingers and needles. Someone straps something against my chest. Next my arms are strapped.

    "It's unbelievable, we're in another convulsion."

    This motor of women and machines, they claim me.

    "It's under control. I think we've got her stabilized now."

    "Is she going to make it? Can she do it?"

Here is what I did.

    I ate him when he was my powdery and juicy sweet boy who wanted to be eaten. He was my morsel. He was delicious in his rodeo pajamas and corduroy slippers squealing, "Tickle me more!" He bucked and kicked. I lassoed him close and tickled more. I rubbed his back as he fidgeted and thrashed his way to sleep. I wiped his nose. I put my pinkie into his tiny nostril when the mucus was hard, crusted into a tight pebble, and I worked to pick it out. I kneaded his stomach when he was crampy with gas. I cut out the knotted hair matted at the back of his head. I tilted his head to keep the shampoo from running into his eyes. I munched on his thick legs. I chewed on his buttocks. I kissed his lips. I let him suck the dried sticky jam off my finger. I put him—once he was so small!—on the changing pad. I cleaned an eye and, with a new cotton, the other eye and with more fresh cotton, the wrinkled skin under his neck and under his arms and, with a little alcohol, I cleaned around the stubby umbilical clamp. And when his penis was still crusty with blood from the doctor's cut, I used a Q-tip to dab salve to that. Then I lifted his feet the way you would lift a trussed chicken and wiped Chickieboy's lightly haired back and his bony behind. Or when he was sick, I held his head while he vomited into the metal mixing bowl or I caught his vomit in my hands when he could not get to the toilet on time. I wiped shit from him and put a little cream on the puckered anus skin when it was raw and red from whatever in his diarrhea made him itch and sting. I touched him all the time. His cheeks, the lids of his eyes, the palms of his hands. I should have touched him more.

    "My eyes," he said, "you have not kissed my eyes."

    Every part of him I kissed. My hair trailed above my kisses so that in the high heat of August when my hair was clipped off my damp neck, he would say, "No, I need your hair with the kisses." But when he said, "Kiss me there," pushing my head toward his perfect miniature cock, I stopped. I shook my head, my hair shaking in a tickley way on his chest and said, "No way, Loverboy, there will be no kisses like that."

There is no falling in love like the falling in love with a child.

    What a thing it is, love! How love amazes us, at first turning us ever deeper into love. How it thrills, and thrilled, dizzy, descending, we imagine there is no end to the depth. And how, finally so deep in love, we panic. How did we get here? How long will it be until our circumstances exhaust our love? Or will our circumstances outlive the love?

    Either way, how will we survive?

    There is no falling in love like the falling in love with a child.

    His breath, that sweet dazzle, the thousands of tiny exhalations. Or a night he is ill, his body a damp burning against my chest and I do not sleep listening to each wheezy thick breath as he sleeps sitting up in my arms.

    Who has ever wanted to share a love? I had done everything to make this child. I refused to share.

    I listened to the smiles that said, "He is ours now, lady."

    I packed us up. It was as easy, as quick as leaving all the rental rooms I had ever left. A few boxes loaded into the backseat, that is all we would need. This time we would roam farther than the city or the island with its washed-out bridge. We needed to speed very far away. That is why Mrs. Yarkin came back all these years later, why she appeared, whispering to follow her. We would find a road not on any map. She would show me where she had driven off to in the middle of the night.

    I was never going to be ready to give him up.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Names and naming, pet names and real names figure prominently throughout Loverboy. The mother calls her son by every loving nickname-Cookie, Honey, Loverboy-but never by his given name, Paul. Paul's sudden insistence on being called by his real name is significant and upsetting for the mother. What do names signify for both of them?

2. The narrator is an anonymous narrator who awakes in a hospital. We know her only as Paul's mother and by the names they have invented for her in their enclosed and magical games. Why has Redel chosen to keep the narrator unnamed?

3. As the narrator's obsessive relationship to her son and to mothering becomes more obvious, Redel maintains the reader's empathy toward the mother. Do you believe the character remains simultaneously both a disturbing and sympathetic figure? How does Redel manage this?

4.Unlike much contemporary literature, Loverboy does not have a happy ending. Nor even one in which redemption is a genuine possibility. Instead, Loverboy falls into the realm of tragedy as it seems to draw from the literature of classical tragedy. Can you think about ways in which the protagonist is and is not a typical tragic hero?

5. Redel takes on many taboo subjects regarding mothering. In what ways does she do this and does she manage through an extreme example to say something larger about love and separation?

6. Loverboy is told in many short chapters, some even less than a page. Is this short vignette form effective? How does it help create a tone to the novel?

7. Magic and magical worlds figure highly in the invented world created by Paul and his mother. On the night before he leaves for school Paulannounces, "Magically I will cover my eyes and when I open them, I will be gone." How has the very rich world the mother has created with her son ultimately backfired on her?

8.The bird box, the spy game, and the fenced schoolyard are examples of the imagery Redel uses to indicate a potent internal and external world. These images are compounded by things lost and things found-for example, the hide and seek game. Even Paul himself seems lost to his mother in the neighborhood playground. What is the effect of this imagery and what does it indicate about the mother's psychology?

9. In short flashbacks, the narrator reveals moments in her own childhood where she pretended to limp or displayed exorbitant knowledge in order to be noticed and seen by her self-enraptured parents. How has this childhood affected her? What do these glimpses tell us about the mother's relationship with her son, even about her decision to have and how to have a child?

10.The narrator's equation, "Many men equal no father" is the subject of the center section "The City of Fathers." She backs up her equation with facts about the mating practices of other cultures and even other animal species. How and why does she ultimately revise that equation?

11."It would do well to have a passion" is a repeated phrase throughout the novel. What does this mean to the narrator and how does it inform and justify her actions throughout the novel?

12.Throughout the novel there are odd characters-Mrs. Yarkin, Jacob, even Emerson-that have a brief but enduringly powerful impact on the narrator. Why do these characters figure in the novel? Is their role largely symbolic or do they represent certain options that the narrator accepts or rejects?

13. At the end of the book the mother says, "I am saving my son from the ordinary. I am saving him from an obvious life." What does "the exceptional" and "the ordinary" mean within this novel? And is the mother's judgment or wish for her son entirely wrong for a parent?

14. The obsession of the mother is clearly outside the realm of most parenting. But do her beliefs or behaviors represent ways many parents feel or behave? What is the line she crosses? Does Redel lead us to believe that the mother had a choice?

Copyright (c) 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2003

    Unforgettable and harrowing tale

    A stunning, harrowing, unforgettable story about a mother whose obsessive love for her son crosses the edge from motherly devotion to suicidal obsession. The unnamed narrator, advised to find a passion by her bizarre parents, becomes consumed with the idea of having a son to love, engaging in frantic one night stands in a desperate attempt to create a child, a child with whom she begins to converse before he is even conceived. When her son Paul finally enters the world, she constructs a cocoon around the two of them in fierce determination to keep even the most normal aspects of the outside world away. Her obsession with her son descends into sicker and sicker behavior - she sits in her car and stares at his school classroom all day and eventually resorts to Munchausen syndrome to possess him during school hours - and crashes in a final harrowing act that reveals her utter selfishness. We realize that she does not consider her son his own person, only an extension of herself conceived and born to fill a space within her but unworthy of his own life without her. And yet you cannot condemn her outright. This unforgettable novel will be read in one sitting but will stay with you long after that.

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