I discovered The Mother Garden by Robin Romm at a used bookstore when I was visiting family in Florida last year. The stories on the back sounded so intriguing: a woman plants a garden of mothers to replace the one she lost, a man uses an egg to see if he is ready for fatherhood, and a daughter finds her long-lost father in the middle of the desert. How could I resist? While most of the stories were grounded in reality, there was definitely a touch a magical realism running through some of them. In the end, I wasn’t pleased with all of the stories in this collection, but I did find it to be an overall good read.
While I’ve read loads of short story collections over the years, The Mother Garden was the first one where all of the stories revolved around the same theme: the impact of losing a parent. Both of my parents passed away some time ago, and I found that these stories reminded me of the impact that loss has on our lives. I was drawn into the first story with its opening line, “My mother’s going to die.” The mom in question is slowly dying of cancer, and Romm fills the story with haunting details such as the wheeze of the oxygen tank and the painful disintegration of the body. Once we see how mom’s illness impacts the daughter and her father, Romm throws a twist into the story in having a strange woman wash up on the beach. The young lady’s sudden appearance is left unexplained, and her influence on the mother is what drives the rest of this story.
Romm infuses all of these stories with a touch of the bizarre that often borders on magical realism. One of my favorite stories in the collection, “Lost and Found,”is about a woman who discovers a naked man passed out in the middle of the desert. There’s a note attached to the man’s foot saying This is your father. Do as you will. The narrator brings her “father” home who has never been in her life. Another favorite story, “The Beads,” is about the jewelry a woman makes from the mysterious beads found in her dead mother’s stomach. “Family Epic” explores the drama that only our loved ones can bring, but with a twist: most of the family are dead and appear to the narrator as ghosts.
You will soon discover that these stories are less about death and more about the impact that the characters face because of it. Romantic relationships with others are affected significantly from unexplored grief. Another theme is parenthood, such as the need to not make the same mistakes as our parents made. Romm also explores our fascination with death. In “Celia’s Fish,” a man who is having an affair with his dying wife’s best friend worries that she’s too attentive of a nursemaid:
“It’s more excruciating and exhilarating than any carnival ride or horror film. It’s happening right in front of them, what they all fear most.”
The inclusion of strange elements keep these stories fresh. Romm writes in a very straightforward and simplistic style that makes the bizarre quite believable. Even in the title story about planting a garden of mothers, it all feels very realistic. Romm insists in the interview that concludes the book that there is no magic here. I would argue against this statement as the magic that runs throughout these tales are the every day type of magic that exists all around us.
Although I enjoyed this collection, it had some problems. Romm often ended her stories abruptly at climatic moments. While this worked sometimes, I found that it didn’t necessarily work for every story. I actually think some of these stories, such as “The Arrival,” could have used some further expansion.
I think The Mother Garden is a confident debut from a writer who can clearly write well. However, she is a debut writer so some of the stories definitely are more polished and complete than others. I am impressed, however, that Romm created a thought-provoking collection of “slice-of-death” stories that remind us of the complexities of the parent-child relationship even in death.
“Some people go chasing these phantoms all of their lives. Each day begins with a shadow of loss that hangs with the curtains, each evening comes to a close with a list of ways things could have been.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below.