Category Archives: Colm Toibin

19th Discussion: Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons (20 Apr 2011)

Book club started off with three members having lukewarm responses to the book (Raj: “no new material and no excitement in the stories”; Timmy: “repressed emotions not expressed, painful”; and Nicole: “repeated themes”). On the other hand, Alex liked the 2.5 stories he read and Aaron claimed it is the best book the book club has done. They adored the style, a “surface” writing that brings out the depth of emotions; and the complexity of characters, neither condemning nor apotheosizing them.

1. “A Song”: Alex’s fav. Alex reasoned that the lack of climax in the story mirrors real life. He also found the relationship of the mother and son heartbreaking: they probably think of each other over the years yet they do not want to break the silence.

2. “Use of Reason”: Raj’s fav. because of the realism. Nicole noted the theme of violence that adds to the realism. Timmy noted the lack of father figure in the book, except for the nameless narrator in this story. (We didn’t talk about the significance of the anonymity.) Nicole brought out how emotionally detached the character is and Aaron linked the points together: the character is stoic because of the death of his brother, Billy, which his mother points out in one of the rare moments of her sobriety. That’s why only after what the mother says does he have an epiphany, to burn the stolen paintings. Burning, Timmy suggested, is a way of letting go.

3. “A Journey”: Nicole’s fav. Nicole pointed out how empowered the mothers in the stories are. She also notes the helplessness of the son, incapacitated by his depression.

4. Timmy and Raj, on hearing about power women, talked about “A Summer Job.” They had an impression of the mother pushing her son to her mother although, Raj pointed out, the ending is ambiguous. Do we truly understand the son?

5. Another powerful mother figure is “Name of the Game,” Timmy’s favorite. He enjoyed how a strong, independent single mother rises against all odds to provide for her family. Alex kept having an impression that the single mother has to fend off advances from men; at any moment, Alex expected the mother to “suck dick,” which she doesn’t. Aaron didn’t like how the daughters aren’t developed properly as characters. Raj stood up for the son in the story: how could the mother sell away the family business? While agreeing with Raj, Nicole and Aaron batted for the other team: Nicole said perhaps the mother doesn’t want her son to follow in his father’s footsteps while Aaron commented that the mother has her own life to lead, a life without prejudice from the town people, and besides the son is too young to know any better. We all agreed it is a nasty business altogether.

6. “A Long Winter”: Aaron’s fav. He liked the sexy scene of the policeman and Miquel, a scene which Timmy calls “eye-fucking.” Aaron argued that there is an incestuous element in Miquel’s love for his mother, evident in how he smells her underwear. The rest of the members disagreed. Aaron then went on to strengthen his incest point, by pointing out Manolo, the manservant, is a stand-in for Miquel’s mother, and Miquel has desires for Manolo, although the manservant is asexual. When talking about the ending, Aaron couldn’t fathom why the father-son duo hates the vultures so much and Nicole elucidated that the vultures are metaphors of the town people, feeding on gossip. Small-town gossip seems to be the running theme in the book, besides mother-son relationships and Catholicism.

7. “Three Friends.” This will probably be Alex’s favorite had he read this. Nicole points out that the rave party is cathartic for Fergus, for him to lose himself in spite of his grief. Aaron wondered aloud if it is because of the mother’s death that allows Fergus to enter a relationship or if it is because Mick sees Fergus’s in a different light at the funeral? Either answer seems probable.

8. “A Priest in the Family” is a crowdpleaser, we all loved it. Timmy thought that the initial suspense is that the priest wants to propose to the mother. Raj suggested that the mother keeps delaying the meeting with the priest because she already knows; mothers always know. Aaron pointed out how complex this mother is: she dislikes her son’s behavior yet she stands by him. Timmy continued that in these 9 stories, no matter if you despise or dislike the mothers, they are always there, and always true, and they are neither good nor bad, just making the best out of a bad situation. Raj noted that in all the stories, even though mothers may not be prominently featured, their presence is always felt and is pivotal.

We didn’t booze because Isaac wasn’t around. Special thanks to Raj for his cocktail and tea!

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