Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead follows the relationship between mothers and daughters, told in vignettes against the changing times between 1980 and 1995. It is a comedy of manners novel with loads of laugh out loud moments.
Laura comes from a wealthy New York City family descended from a Robber Baron whose inherited wealth supports her. She has a degree in English and a job through the family. She envies self-made people.
Laura has never been in love. Her mother's favorite saying is that it doesn't matter who you marry--you will end up thinking, "Anything would be better than this!"
The book begins with Laura pondering that a husband would be nice to have around the apartment if the window were swollen or the fire detector battery needed replacing. She wouldn't have to wait until morning to call the super.
She dresses in Fry boots and a flowered Laura Ashley skirt and turtleneck sweater--a uniform she wears all of her life. (I had those fry boots and made a Ralph Lauren full skirt. Unlike Laura, they went to the Goodwill long before the 1980s were over!) She has no intention of having children, no interest in marrying. She is concerned about the environment. She has The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and Moosewood cookbooks but rarely cooks.
In 1980 while her parents are away, she stays at their home for a week. She is surprised that a man is also staying there. She assumes he is a friend of her brothers, and he does tell her stories of their time together in boarding school. Before the week is out, he charms her into bed with him. The next day he is gone.
He was not a friend of her brother's but a house-crashing burglar. The one-night stand leaves her pregnant. Laura makes up a story of artificial insemination with donated Swedish sperm. Emma is born, and Laura does her best as a mother, hoping to give Emma a life different from hers, apart from artificial high society values. She finds an apartment on the border of Harlem--but on the 'right side' of the street.
I laughed out loud so many times. Laura goes on a date and notices the man has earrings. She decides they aren't meant to be, but the earrings turn out to be his daughter's stickers.
Laura's friend Margaret explains she has joined "the club", seeing a "shrink." After years of marriage, she sometimes looks at her sleeping husband, whose snoring keeps her awake, and thinks that it is a good thing she didn't have a gun in her bedside table.
Don't worry, things turn out fine for the marriage. But what a clever scene to talk about the idea that "it doesn't matter who you marry, one day you'll be sitting across the table from him, thinking, Anything would be better than this." I'm pretty sure husbands think the same thing about wives. I'll ask mine the next time I am wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt to keep warm--my Oompa Loompa look according to him.
The book was promoted in terms of, "if you liked Ladybird or Gilmore Girls." Gilmore Girls included a single mom at odds with her wealthy parents, and Ladybird showed a teenager wanting the freedom to find her own way. The themes are similar.
We learn about Laura by her actions and passivity. She is the least self-aware character imaginable. Her inner conflicts are hinted at without an overt authorial voice. We make connections about Laura by implication.
Emma, on the other hand, is sharp as a tack. As a preschooler she asks Laura why they don't live "in their neighborhood," that is where their friends and stores are.
I know readers who do not like this book because 1) it is episodic, without a strong linear plot; 2) it is character-driven without a lot of inner dialogue; and, 3) it is open-ended.
But I enjoyed it. I love a good comedy of manners. Laura's inability to deal with adult intimate relationships, Emma's zeroing in on the inconsistencies of their lives, and the gaps between mothers and daughters all feel real.
I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Laura & Emma
by Kate Greathead
Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: March 13, 2018