Saturday, December 10, 2011

Between Mom and Jo by Julie Anne Peters

Nick is being raised by his biological mother, Erin, and her partner Jo. They brought him into the world through artificial insemination. Each of his mothers is loving, complicated and very flawed. And when they struggle with marital problems, Nick is caught in the middle, trying to understand the complex choreography of their relationship.

At first this seems to be an "issues" novel about the challenges of being reared in a nontraditional family and facing societal prejudice. This facet of Nick's life is certainly explored. A 3rd grade teacher refuses to display Nick's drawing of his family on Parent-Teacher night and doesn't acknowledge his moms' presence. Kids ridicule him and assume he's gay, because his parents are. A babysitter gawks at Nick's family like it's a freak show. But this novel is much more complex than that.

It's a story about a child facing the disintegration of his parents' marriage; it could be about any kind of family. Other issues, including parental alcoholism, school bullies, and loneliness are woven throughout the book, along with commitment, love, and the power of promises.

This story is driven by dialogue, and other moments of connection between people, as well as by Nick's internal struggles. And the character development is wonderful. Jo is my favorite character though, honestly, I wouldn't want to live with her. :-) She's colorful and funny, with well-honed toughness thinly disguising her deep vulnerability and loneliness. She's often impulsive, and she struggles with alcoholism. Erin has an intensely controlling side, which fits like a lock and key with her alcoholic partner's issues. Erin's need for control is sparked by Jo's unpredictability, which --in turn -- is exacerbated by Erin's need for control. They're locked in a destructive dance, balanced by moments of love, tenderness and fun. When the dance ends, things get even worse, and Nick suffers most of all.

This was such a sad, painful book to read. There's nothing harder than seeing a child suffer, feeling trapped. My jaw was clenched throughout the last third of the book because I was sad and angry. It was probably not the ideal book to read when I'm PMSing. :-)

I liked the fact that this novel wasn't about a perfect lesbian couple raising a child and facing difficulties because of their unconventional lifestyle. It explores how each individual's flaws and struggles contribute to the breakdown of a relationship. Though prejudice from family members and the community play a role in their difficulties, most of Erin's and Jo's problems are caused by themselves, their blind spots, and their mistakes. I suspect that's true of all of us, eh?

For this reason, I liked it better than Keeping You a Secret. The lesbian couple in that story showed few major faults; nearly all their challenges stemmed from homophobia. That's a story that needs to be told, but I found that aspect limiting. Between Mom and Jo is a story about love, commitment, resentment, divorce, and the cruelty people show those they love most. Homophobia is always present -- it doesn't just vanish. But it's only a part of the picture and not the most important part. This struck me as honest and real. I strongly believe we need more novels and films with GLBTQ characters which aren't about not being straight.

I recommend Between Mom and Jo to teens and adults who enjoy serious YA fiction and family dramas. It explores the themes of love, commitment, loss, resentment and forgiveness, and will offer a wealth of discussion opportunities for parents and teens. I have read plenty of YA novels, most of which I enjoyed then tossed aside, the characters quickly fading in my mind. But this is definitely a story I'll find it difficult to forget.

More Reviews: The Zen Leaf; Bookshelves of Doom; Bart's Bookshelf; Big A Little a

Rating: 4

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me

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