Don’t let the egg on the cover fool you—it’s riddled with cracks. Nine Months (Soho Press) by Paula Bomer is the opposite of every clichéd story about mothers, birth, children, marriage and identity. It is the raw, honest and brutal story of Sonia, a mother pregnant with her third child, and unhappy with every aspect of her life. She used to be a painter, she used to run wild and free, sleeping with whomever she wanted to, living for herself. Faced with the birth of her third child, she abandons her husband, Dick, and her two boys, and hits the highway, searching for something, open to whatever comes her way.
Bomer cuts across the grain from the very beginning of this novel. We expect to see a traditional mother: happy to take care of her children, content in her role as caregiver and housekeeper. But Sonia is far from Mrs. Cleaver. She is frustrated, isolated and uncertain as to what can make her happy. Take this passage, from the moments right after the birth of her daughter. Is this the mindset of a well-adjusted and hopeful mother?
“First slowly, and then, as if something in her wired-for-survival brain clicks, she ferociously latches on to Sonia’s nipple and sucks on her like that’s what she’s been put on this earth to do. Which is, in fact, true. Her daughter is here to suck the life out of her, and leave her for the spent, middle-aged woman she soon will be. Nothing will be remotely the same again. No one has ever threatened Sonia as much as this unnamed infant. No one has ever made it clear how useless and spent she really is.”
Sonia borders on the psychotic, getting no real pleasure out of the things in life that should make her happy—everything from feeding her kids to having sex with her husband to taking a stroll to the park. She is moody, but she is not empty. Everything sets her off—she is sensitive, overly sensitive—and overflowing with emotions. Here she is in the park with her neighbor Clara, describing Clara’s daughter, Willa:
“Willa stares at the two of them, her mouth set in a pout…She freaks Sonia out…She feels spied upon. She feels judged. She feels like this little two-year-old girl is already sizing her up to see how she can bring her down. She feels like Willa knows how to be mean already. No hitting on impulse, without thinking about it, like her boys do. Not that kind of meanness, not the behaving without thinking sort of spontaneous behavior. No Willa, two-year-old Willa, who’s still in diapers, who still sucks on her thumb, already knows how to be a fucking bitch.”
Did Sonia really just call a two-year old a fucking bitch? This sets the tone for the rest of the novel. But where a lesser author might have left Sonia a two-dimensional harpy, hitting the same note over and over again, Bomer takes us deep within the complications of motherhood and childbirth. A woman’s body changes, she becomes engorged. She’s hot one moment and cold the next; turned on and eager to be touched one day, and ready to vomit at the slightest caress the next. Over time we come to sympathize with Sonia, this woman who has abandoned her family and run away. Who hasn’t lost their mind for a moment—resented their job, their spouse, and their kids? If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit it. Yet Bomer shows us moments of compassion, as well:
“The kitchen is dark but comforting. Walking this way, with her young boy in her arms, she sets about to making coffee, balancing Mike on her hip and doing everything else with one hand, so as not have to put down her son. So she can keep this warm, wet-bottomed bundle in her arms as she does what needs to be done. And life is good. Life is very good. And Sonia is thankful for her family, eager for her precious, mediocre life, and she can’t believe that once again, she’s going to be a mother to someone new.”
Just when we think that we’ve seen everything there is to see in Sonia, we get more. We understand that she is afraid and uncertain. We see that she loves her family, but needs time to find herself. We even grasp her explosion, her temper, her moments of cold-hearted violence. But she is a sexual being too, and while driving down a dark highway, alone, a moment strikes her, and she is suddenly aroused, unable to control her needs and desires—unwilling to ignore them. Nearing the end of her pregnancy, swollen with a bad case of hemorrhoids, sitting on a plastic donut, it is an unlikely situation for a woman to get aroused, but the tension begs for release:
“Sonia scoots her ass around so she’s gripping the sides of the donut with her ass cheeks. She manages to move the donut with the grip of her butt, so that she now perches on the side of it, rather than sitting on it as she’s meant to sit on it. No more floating in the hole. No more parts of her being suspended in free air. No, now she feels the lips of her crotch embracing the plastic of the donut. She swerves a bit during this maneuvering and looks in the rearview mirror. Her breath is coming a bit more quickly now. She’s nervous. No one behind her, no one immediately behind her. There are some lights far back, far, far back, as this Midwestern highway is so straight and flat she can see for what seems like forever.
She begins grinding, back and forth, back and forth. God. It’s been too long since she last masturbated.”
The scene continues, but I won’t quote it here in its entirety—you’ll have to buy the book. There are moments of shame, of desperation, the flashing lights of a policeman pulling her over, a rush to complete what she started. In one of the most vulnerable moments of the book, we understand what it is to be alive, this need to feel something, anything. Sometimes we succumb.
Paula Bomer has written a dark, honest and powerful novel in Nine Months, one that constantly surprises the reader as the layers of emotion are peeled off, one after another, revealing the depth and need of the human experience. Bomer says that our natural reaction to a bear in the woods is survival—fight or flight. And for her protagonist, Sonia, “the bear’s her whole fucking life.”