Cat, a middle-class wife and mother, has largely accepted the typical expectations both roles entail. Just shy of 39 and largely dissatisfied, Cat dutifully soldiers on, trying to rebuild a lost career, enduring the indignities of a man-child husband, and pretending to cherish the mind-numbing boredom of early parenting.
“She often tells herself: I will miss this, but is never convinced.”
With Lump, Nathan Whitlock (author of A Week of This and Congratulations on Everything) has captured the monumental and mundane detritus of motherhood – the schedules meticulously kept, the tiny shoes scattered across the hallway, the labour exerted, the identities lost. “(Cat) couldn’t pretend that all she ever wanted to do was sit on a carpet with her baby and sing about wheels on the bus or robins in the rain, or that she didn’t want desperately to be back at her job, surrounded by adults.”
When Cat receives the blindsiding news that she is both pregnant again and has breast cancer, her world starts to pull out of its already tenuous orbit. The final disorienting blow comes when she learns her husband Donavan has done something truly grotesque to the family’s house cleaner, and Cat drunkenly retreats to a wealthy stranger’s yoga sanctuary, abandoning the family and her duties to them.
What’s most striking about Lump is the complexity of its many characters, each brought to life by their desires and imperfections. Whitlock has given real depth to an intricate web of perspectives – whether it is that of a sexually harassed co-worker, a beleaguered and weaponized ex-lover, or Cat’s dejected and bewildered children. Lump even offers the viewpoint of a near-dead dog, something that risks feeling like a stunt, but instead comes off as completely charming.
Lump is successful because of its nuance: there are no clear lines between good and bad, but it also never lets any character off the hook. Cat’s dramatic abandonment of motherhood could easily be cast as villainy if the pressures upon her had not already been so well articulated. “It is miraculous, the idea that she spent decades living only for herself. How had she not awoken each morning laughing out loud at how easy it all was?” Donavan would be a bad husband caricature if he weren’t so well-drawn – an entitled (and yes, disgusting) brat who can’t fathom why anyone would ever believe he had misstepped, but who still haplessly tries to pick up the pieces when Cat is gone.
With wit and empathy, Whitlock skirts the simplicity of a villains-versus-victims narrative and instead gets at larger, more significant issues of power, privilege, freedom, and responsibility. Yes, the players in Lump behave in bizarre, erratic, and even deplorable ways, but every action feels decidedly human – especially for a put-upon wife and mother pushed to the edge. This darkly enjoyable domestic tale is as astute as it is entertaining, skewering the grim realities of domestic life and showing us how dangerously close we can be to setting its expectations ablaze.