Three Mothers Review Annie Hartnett's Rabbit Cake

Lydia McOscar of the Brookline Booksmith, a booklover's paradise that has called Brookline home since the 1950s, teamed up with Grub to curate a series of personal essays from debut authors connected to our fair city of Boston. In this edition, Annie Hartnett, author of Rabbit Cake writes about where she drew inspiration from for her first novel and the most important reviews she received. Catch Annie in action during Grub's Novel Generator

 

I didn’t know my mother was smart until she won the Newton citywide spelling bee. I was in the fourth grade; I had no idea what her PhD meant back then. I did know that my father made most of our family’s money, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought that meant he was the smart one.

My mother was the one who took care of us, who fed us, bathed us, and put us to bed. My mother was the reader. Every night, she read chapter after chapter of The Little House on the Prairie, pausing only to tell my little brother to get his hands out of his pants. “All boys do that,” she whispered to me, and I would point to the place she had stopped reading.

Whenever we were up in our cabin in New Hampshire for a week, she designated a “reading hour” every evening, when the entire family was meant to read. I preferred that hour over the beach, and over the ski slopes.

For as far back as I can remember, my mother has kept a stack of novels on her bedside table, always piled high. Every week we went to the Newton Free Library for a refill, always pausing a moment to sit on the bronze Eeyore statue outside.

*

Sometime during the editing process for my first novel, Rabbit Cake, my editor, Masie, mentioned that she was going to send the book to her mother. Masie explained that her mom taught Southern women’s literature, and would be interested to read a novel set in Alabama. I’d set my novel in a fictional Alabama town because I was living in Alabama when I wrote it, but I felt a little self-conscious that I hadn’t grown up in the South; I wasn’t sure if I’d pulled off the setting. Masie added that her mom is a member of one of the oldest book clubs in the United States.

 

No pressure, I thought.

 

Soon after that my agent, Katie, emailed to say she was sending the novel to her biggest literary influence: Her mother. Katie said her mother’s opinion is the “true test” for any book. 

 

Again, I thought, no pressure. I was so nervous for this audience because it was still six months from publication day at the time, and Katie’s mom and Masie’s mom would be some of the first people who would read the final version of Rabbit Cake. What would these well-read women think about me as a writer? I wondered, my palms already sweating. It really felt like my first test.

 

But then, I thought about it: I imagine, from their mothers’ perspective, the novel doesn’t really belong to me. It’s the book that their daughters have worked on. It’s Katie’s book. It’s Masie’s book. It’s their daughter’s book. Any affection they felt for the book would be directed to their daughter. And if they didn’t like it, they would just shrug it off, their daughters have had episodes of bad taste before: in clothes, music, high school boyfriends. I’d certainly made a few mistakes at Newton North High School and in the many years since, but my mother didn’t dwell on my missteps, my ugly spots. That isn’t how mothering works.

*

“When do I get to read it?” my mom asked, miffed. The other mothers were reading on e-readers, I explained. She doesn’t have an e-reader; she would have to wait until the advance copies were printed.

Besides, I was still mad at her for 2013, the first time I’d given the manuscript to her to read, when I’d printed the first draft out. She’d skipped straight to the end, because she said she needed to know whether I’d given it a happy ending or a sad ending. She claims she does that with all her books. She hates to be surprised. I find that a baffling approach to reading, a practice that would ruin my page-turning momentum. 

When I did get the box of printed advance copies, I drove straight to her house. Again, she flipped to the end.

“Look at the dedication first,” I said. “It’s at the beginning.”

“Oh,” she said, when she saw it was dedicated to her. “That’s nice.”

I made fun of her for the lukewarm reaction, and she said I got my emotional intelligence from my father.

That’s probably true. But the love of books? That I got from her.

*

I think for many bookish people, our mothers were our literary education. My mom was the one who introduced me to Edith Wharton, to Dorothy Parker, to Ann Patchett. She took me to my first ever reading, Mary Gaitskill, at Brookline Booksmith in 2005. Now, my mom always asks me what her book club should read next, even though my recommendations often flop with her group. She asks me which readings she should make sure to attend.

When I asked Masie and Katie about their childhoods and teenage years, they both reported that their mothers were always reading, and always giving them books. Our mothers taught us the reading habit.

The three of us—agent, editor, and author—are all somewhere in our thirties. Masie is a mother herself. But we were all sending the book we’ve worked on to our mothers because we owe our literary careers to their mothering, to the books they read us, the books they handed us when we were older. We are grateful; we are hungry for approval.

*

I “grew up” to be a writer and a teacher. My mother was the one who convinced me to be a teacher, said she knew I’d like it. I’ve been teaching at GrubStreet for the past three years, and my favorite class to teach is one I designed called “Writing without Fear.” I try to teach my students to use fear in their writing, instead of letting fear paralyze their progress.

Write about your worst childhood fear, I assign as one exercise, their homework. My students share an essay about an encounter with a ghost, a story about growing old in a nursing home, a story about humpback whales.

My greatest childhood fear was losing my mother. When my mother would go on an occasional weeklong trip, I kept a log in my diary. I would rate the day on how painful it was to be without her, ranking it anywhere from a one to a ten, ten being most painful. Most days were sevens.

Rabbit Cake is about a little girl named Elvis Babbitt, whose mother drowns while sleepwalking. She spends the rest of the darkly comic novel grieving for her mother, alongside her father and older sister. She keeps track of her grief on a chart.

“The Babbitt family is nothing like our boring family,” my mother said to me. “Except for the dog. You did a good job with the dog.”

The mother of the novel, Eva, is not my mother, but she is inspired by parts of my mother. Eva is a teacher, a scientist with a PhD, she’s smart, she says the wrong thing sometimes, and she really, really, loves the dog.

*

At the last session of my most recent Writing without Fear class, one of my students asked me if there is anything left to be afraid of once you’ve sold a book.

“Oh man,” I said. “There’s a lot you’ll still be scared of. Reviews, for one. Or maybe no one will buy the book. Or you might go to a reading and no one will show up. There’s just so much that’s out of your control.”

“Oh,” she said, and looked down. I’d just undone all the fearlessness training I’d given her.

Oops, I thought.

Personally, reviews are what make me the most nervous, especially reviews from readers online. People are honest on the internet, and sometimes honest means that they are brutal. I hoped that the mothers, my first readers, would be kind.

*

Finally, the reviews came in, first from my agent’s mother. Katie forwarded the e-mail:

Katie -

 

I ABSOLUTELY ADORED IT!  One of the best books I’ve ever read.  The characters and story were so unforgettable it has to make some sort of bestseller list!  I truly cared about all the characters (and the animals, especially Boomer). What a sad, happy, quirky (and sometimes profound) book.   

 

I will never forget this book.

 

Lots of Love, Mom 

 

I was happy to hear the Katie’s mom liked the character of Boomer, the dog, too. A few weeks later, I heard from Masie, who shared her conversations with both her parents:

 

Hi Annie,  

My parents recently visited us in North Carolina and my mom read Rabbit Cake on the plane. She emailed me that she loved it from the air. “Elvis reminds us how both fragile and resilient family life can be. The book strikes a deep chord for parents everywhere doing the best they can, burning various cakes along the way, hoping all will be well in the end."

When they arrived my mom recommended the book to dad. According to her, he seemed to shrug off the recommendation, which bothered her. To remedy this, he started to read while we went for a walk. When we returned, he was 70 pages in. When they got back to Arkansas, my dad called and we spent almost an hour (this is such a gift for me--my dad's not the most social guy--read: Sudoku during dinner parties...) talking about your book. It was clear he'd read closely, quoting some of Elvis's most memorable lines. He described it as "a Southern Gothic with a kid's natural perspective of optimism, with eyes open to wonder." 

So it's been a family affair and that makes me feel so lucky. 

xo

M

 

I was relieved that her father thought I’d pulled off Southern Gothic, even though I’d grown up with New England winters and parents with slight Boston accents. I had, at least, read Flannery O’Connor early on, thanks to my mother. “I hate her,” my mom said when I was in high school. “But she’s a writer you’d probably like.”

 

And finally, my own mother wrote me about the book, after she’d called and I hadn’t picked up:

Hi Annie,

I just called but you didn’t pick up. Is your phone broken? I finished reading your book. Even if you had not been the one who wrote the book, it would have been an extra-special read for me. I laughed at many parts of the book, and cried at a few. I read most of it on the T, so the crying was embarrassing.

I can hardly wait to give this book to everyone. It's a lot of fun. Elvis is definitely her own person, though I see a piece of you in her. I always said of you that you had a big heart that you wore on your sleeve. I would say the same of Elvis. This book has both heart and humor. I hope many people have the good sense to read it and get to enjoy it as much as I did. And I'm not saying this just because I am your mother.

Are you coming over on Thursday?

Love, Mom

I am not Elvis, the main character of my novel, but it’s true: we share the same heart. We love the same things: animals, books, and, above all, our mothers.

 

Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake (Tin House Books). She was the 2013-2014 Writer in Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and currently teaches classes on the novel and short story at GrubStreet. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and border collie. Applications for Annie's Novel Generator program are now open. Submit yours before the November 21st, 2017 deadline.

About the Author

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