The New York Times
Mother of Sorrowsby Richard McCann
With the breadth and cumulative force of a novel, Mother of Sorrows presents ten interwoven stories of an American family starting out in the post—World War II suburbs of Washington, D.C., a world of identical brick houses and sunstruck, treeless lawns, a world of initial hopefulness from which shame and loss have seemingly been banished. This is the story of two adolescent brothers whose father has suddenly died, and of their beautiful and complicated mother, a mother whom the younger son worshipfully imagines as “Our Mother of the Sighs and Heartaches . . . Our Mother of the Gorgeous Gypsy Earrings . . . Our Mother of the Late Movies and the Cigarettes . . . Our Mother of Sudden Attentiveness . . . Our Mother of Sudden Anger.” This is the brother who narrates these tales as he looks back thirty years later, the only remaining survivor of a world he seeks both to leave behind and to preserve in words forever, a world of sorrow that has held him spellbound even as he has attempted to create a life of his own.
Suffused with the beauty of Richard McCann’s extraordinary language, Mother of Sorrows introduces us to a voice that is urgent, contemplative, elegant, angry, revelatory, and like no other in contemporary fiction.
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Times
“Some of the cleanest, most elegant and unfussy prose I’ve read in ages. . . . [It] is, on one level, a gay coming-of-age narrative, and as such it ranks among the best. . . . But the ruling metaphors here are more universal: concealment and disclosure, assertion and invisibility.” –James Marcus, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“The voice in McCann’s Mother of Sorrows is purely his own — lyrical, melancholy, precise, refined.” –Newsday
“McCann holds such an exquisitely bright light over the landscape of 1950s suburban Maryland and the coming of age of his emotionally fragile, unnamed protagonist who appears in each interlocking story that the resulting book feels almost combustible. . . [His] prose is full of achingly sensual detail and imagery.” –The Washington Post Book World
Read an Excerpt
Crêpe de Chine
Each night, after dinner, my father went downstairs to his workbench to build birdhouses, which he fashioned from scraps of wood left over from pine-paneling our basement. He was a connoisseur of birdhouses, my mother said. His favorite was a miniature replica of our ranch house, with a tiny Plexiglas picture window, a red Dutch door, and a shingled roof. It was a labor of love, he said the night he completed it.
My brother, Davis, went to his room, where he listened to Radio Moscow on his shortwave. As for me: I cleared the table.
“Sit with me, son,” my mother said. “Let’s pretend we’re sitting this dance out.”
She told me I was her best friend. She said I had the heart to understand her. She was forty-six. I was nine.
She sat at the table as if she were waiting to be photographed, holding her cigarette aloft. “Have I told you the story of my teapot?” she asked, lifting a Limoges pot from the table. She had been given the teapot by her mother, whom we called Dear—Dear One, Dear Me, Dearest of Us All. Dear had just recently entered a sanatorium for depression, after having given away some of her most cherished possessions. When she died at home a few months later—she’d returned to her deteriorated Brooklyn brownstone, where she slept on a roll-away bed in the basement—my mother found she’d left an unwitnessed will written entirely in rhymed couplets: “I spent as I went / Seeking love and content,” it began.
“No,” I told my mother as I examined the teapot’s gold-rimmed lid, “you haven’t told me about it.”
In fact, by then my mother had already told me about almost everything. But I wanted to hear everything again. What else in Carroll Knolls—our sunstruck subdivision of identical brick houses—could possibly have competed with the stories my mother would summon from her china or her incomplete sterling tea service or the violet Louis Sherry candy box where she kept her dried corsages? I wanted to live within the lull of her voice, soft and regretful, as she resuscitated the long-ago nights of her girlhood, those nights she waited for her parents to come home in taxicabs from parties, those nights they still lived in the largest house on Carroll Street, those nights before her parents’ divorce, before her father started his drinking.
She whispered magic word: crêpe de chine, Sherry Netherlands, Havilland, Stork Club, argent repousée . . .
Night after night she told me her stories.
Night after night I watched her smoke her endless Parliaments, stubbing out the lipstick-stained butts in a crystal ashtray. We sat at the half-cleared table like two deposed aristocrats for whom any word might serve as the switch of a minuterie that briefly lights a long corridor of memory—so long, in fact, the switch must be pressed repeatedly before they arrive at the door to their room.
She said her mother had once danced with the Prince of Wales.
She said her father had shaken hands with FDR and Al Capone.
She said she herself had once looked exactly like Merle Oberon.
To prove it, she showed me photos of herself taken during her first marriage, when she was barely twenty. From every photo she’d torn her ex-husband’s image, so that in most of them she was standing next to a jagged edge, and in some of them a part of her body—where he’d had his hand on her arm, perhaps—was torn away also.
She said life was fifty-fifty with happiness and heartache.
She said that when she was a girl she’d kept a diary in which she’d recorded the plots of her favorite movies.
She said that if I was lucky I too would inherit the gift of gab.
When I was little, she read me Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, nobody. Goodnight, mush. And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush.”
But otherwise, she read me no bedtime books. She told me no fairy tales.
Instead she came to my room at night to tell me stories that began like these: Once upon a time, I had a gold brush and comb set. Once upon a time, my parents looked like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Once upon a time, I rode a pony in Central Park. Once upon a time, I had a silver fox coat.
Things she told me, sitting on the edge of my bed at night:
“I was born with a caul. That means I have a sixth sense.”
Or, touching her perfumed wrist to my cheek: “This is called ‘Shalimar.’ ”
Or, faintly humming: “Do you know this tune? Do you know ‘When I Grow Too Old to Dream, I’ll Have You to Remember’?”
Or sometimes when she coughed—her “nervous cough,” her “smoker’s cough”—she said, “One day, after I’m gone, you’ll hear a woman cough like this, and you’ll think she is me.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Richard McCann’s work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Tin House, and Ploughshares, and in many anthologies, including Best American Essays 2000. He is the author of Ghost Letters, a book of poems. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and from the Fulbright and Rockefeller Foundations. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he co-directs the graduate program in creative writing at American University.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Well written and insightful
Richard Mccann¿s book reminds me of Tolstoi saying that if a writer accurately describes his reality in his work then he has accomplished his task as a writer. This is what Mccann has done in this book. He caught the reflection of his and this beaitful and moving book is the result.
Raw emotion, death, being a disappointment to his father, and a journey into manhood like no other. With meticulous details of 1950¿s American suburbia, ¿Mother of Sorrows¿ artfully goes back and forth between childhood and a lifetime of regret, anger and reconcilation.
the kirkus review is totally off target on this book - the reviewer obviously didn't get it. this is a book of linked short stories about the same family - two boys, and their parents - growing up in the suburbs of washington d c in the fifties. Don't look for a chronological sequence here; the stories move back and forth in time, each one illuminating something more -- often shocking -- about the relationships between these people. And it's written with such honesty and precision that reading it may remind you a bit of Long Day's Journey Into Night - it's got the same sadness, and merciless honesty. It's also funny, and the sort of intense writing you get only when a poet (which McCann is) turns to prose. For the precision of its observations, the evocation of the painfulness of living in a family with parents you did not choose, this book is off the charts. Highly recommended.