“Missy loved that poem [‘The Jabberwocky’]. She said it gave her hope, not understanding it, but loving the way it sounded. Not understanding the thing you love, but loving it fiercely anyway…”
Mother-daughter relationships are known for misunderstandings. It has been that way since, probably, the dawn of humanity. Mothers and daughters argue, they disagree, they get under each other’s skin. But they’re also known for being each other’s biggest fans, best friends, and the biggest source of support for each other. As a daughter with a loving mother, I can attest to all of the above. But I never disagreed with my mother quite to the extent that Abbie disagrees with her mother Ruth in Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby. This mother-daughter pair is one that could rival any other: Ruth and Abbie remind readers of the importance of communication with loved ones, and they illustrate to us that while we don’t always understand those we love, we do still love them; and that’s what matters most.
In Famous Baby, Ruth Sternberg makes her writing debut with a fictional novel; but when she runs out of steam, she turns to nonfiction, the realities of everyday life, for her raw material and inspiration. The first of the oh-so-popular “Mommy bloggers,” Ruth tells everything about her experiences with her daughter Abbie. With nothing to hide and every life detail fair game for her blog, Ruth gives her readers every story, every event, every facet of her daughter’s personal life for the sake of “…telling it like it is, because that’s all there is.” Rather than being thrilled with the fame and having people recognize her and know her name, like many children would be, Abbie is disenchanted and wishes there were at least a few private moments in the family that could remain private. One of Abbie’s earliest memories in fact is being frightened by a stranger who recognized her in public.
Abbie is quite unlike Ruth in other ways. She prefers her calculus class to the improv class Ruth made her take. The differences don’t end there; Abbie is not only more concerned with privacy than her mother, but she also stands in stark contrast with the bubbly, talkative personality of Ruth. She displays a seriousness and maturity from a young age that causes Ruth to say that Abbie was “born old.” They try to communicate; but it isn’t always successful. For example, at one point in Abbie’s childhood, Ruth wants to do a mother-daughter project with Abbie by redecorating Abbie’s room. When Abbie reveals her choice of wall paper – a simple, pretty pattern – Ruth is unimpressed, and urges her to choose something outrageously special. Ruth surprises Abbie by finishing the room herself; when Abbie walks in, she finds a heavily patterned, brightly colored room that is nothing at all like she would have chosen. And of course Ruth expects her to be excited and just can’t fathom why Abbie isn’t thrilled.
By the time she graduates high school, Abbie has had enough of her mother’s blogging about her. So she leaves town for a break before college. She settles in a small desert town and makes friends with her neighbors, who are all elderly – fitting friendships, given Abbie’s maturity level. She then learns that Ruth plans to move Esther, Ruth’s mother, in with her to care for her during her final days fighting cancer; but not only to care for her – to, of course, blog about the whole ordeal from day to day, since Abbie is no longer there to provide writing material. Abbie believes that Esther will be the next victim of Ruth’s “cyber exploitation,” and Abbie hatches a plan to rescue her grandmother from Ruth’s blogging.
Maybe we’re never really who we think we are. You go around projecting a certain image that seems to make sense, and then something happens that scrambles that image or knocks it out of your head entirely. And if you’re lucky, maybe you can make use of that moment. But — I hate to say it — I think most people are probably too scared of it, and can’t wait to go back to being the same person they always were.
I don’t think I’d be spoiling anything at this point by saying that Ruth and Abbie ultimately have their explosion of communication in the end. They each learn important things about each other in the process of working out what each thinks is best for herself, and for Esther. Ruth reveals why she finds it perfectly comfortable to tell readers every detail of personal life; and Abbie reveals to Ruth why she prefers privacy and resents Ruth for the blog. The importance of privacy is examined; and even the desire to care for someone in need is examined through Esther: both Abbie and Ruth believe they know what is best for Esther, who is truly in need of care, suffering from cancer and episodes of dementia. But ultimately, Esther is capable of making her own choices, and she feels entitled to do so, as an experienced woman who has led a full life. And even she makes us readers wonder if all secrets are meant to be disclosed.
While I found certain aspects of this book less than believable, I found the story itself to be inventive and fascinating. I had never thought about what the subjects of such blogs as Ruth’s would feel like having their lives aired online for anyone to read. Famous Baby is a unique and interesting story. While the cursing seemed unnatural at times, I find all of Rizzo’s characters to be realistic, and her development of all these characters is praiseworthy.
Most importantly, I find Rizzo’s development of the mother-daughter relationships amongst Ruth, Abbie, and Esther to be insightful and realistic. Even their names –Ruth and Esther, Biblical (like the symbolic Joshua Tree Ruth mentions), older-fashioned names – suggestive of traditional ideals and beliefs – and Abbie, more modern and fresh, suggestive of innovation and progress: prove both accurate and ironic for all three.
As it is, neither Ruth nor Abbie is a hero or a villain; neither is necessarily right or wrong. Each is simply who she is. Esther, as well, is an independent woman with her own beliefs who won’t let cancer or dementia or pain or her well-meaning caregivers deter her. The most important thing is that all three communicate, as each sees fit, in the end. They ultimately find a balance between what should be public and what should be private; and they communicate with each other about which is which. This is something all families should strive for. After all, like Abbie’s friend Miguel says figuratively about family, “‘You can’t change the weather, and a lot of the time, you can’t even predict it! It’s just one of those things you have to accept.’” So I for one want to take a lesson from Ruth, Esther, and Abbie (and Miguel): We can’t change our family, even when we don’t understand them or think we know what’s best for them. But we should think carefully about their feelings and do our best to understand them, as much as possible, and never ever forget that we love them. And never ever forget to communicate it to them.
Total pages: 256