Pop culture has in recent years launched the concept of motherhood into more nuanced and realistic incarnations than the perpetually smiling housewife of yore. From Drunk Mom to Bad Moms, portrayals of women with children as unique, flawed individuals whose identities surpass – and intertwine with – the definition of “mother” are becoming the norm. In Andrea MacPherson’s third novel, What We Once Believed, readers are presented with a variety of mothers (and other female characters), all of them captivating in their stunning imperfection.
Though there are male characters and fleeting love interests in the mix, the story’s focus is the personal growth of the women in Oak Bay, a Vancouver Island town – principally, 11-year-old Maybe and her mother, Camille, who has just returned after an unexplained nine-year absence. The tensions between Maybe, Camille, and Camille’s mother, Gigi – who raised the young girl after Camille’s departure – are a consistent undercurrent, ebbing and flowing over one summer as Maybe comes to realize that Camille can’t be the mother she’s held out hope for. The girl’s delight upon Camille’s return quickly turns to disappointment followed by anger as she discovers a memoir Camille wrote during her travels. The text – in which Maybe is hardly mentioned – focuses on Camille’s rejection of motherhood; even worse, a follow-up she’s working on paints the town, and Camille herself, in a false light.
On the periphery of this drama are the other women of Oak Bay – among them, Maybe’s best friend, Phoebe, and Phoebe’s mother, Robin, who’s unable to stifle the dreams she gave up to become a stay-at-home mom. There’s also the elusive but friendly Mary Quinn, a painter who moved to the tiny community to escape a troubled past that slowly comes to assert itself through her art. As September approaches, one final upheaval brings all of these issues to a cathartic climax, leaving the acrimony to die with the season.
An apt snapshot of a multi-generational group of women – Bechdel-test approved – struggling to heal from life’s inevitable traumas, What We Once Believed is a beautiful summer read.