Adams’ debut breaks first-novel conventions

Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother

By Hollie Adams

NeWest Press

186 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

Form and how to tell the story are critical choices for a writer. Some might say the only choice. And in writing her first novel, Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother, Hollie Adams has boldly tossed most first-novel conventions out the window.

Hollie Adams lives in Calgary where she completed her Ph.D. in English. She has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Filling Station, The Antigonish Review and The Windsor Review. She was a finalist for the Broken Social Scene story contest organized by House of Anansi in 2013.

At the outset of Things You’ve Inherited From Your Mother we’re with our narrator, Carrie, and her mother at the hospital, in the last days before her mother dies. The relationship is strained and funny, Carrie’s mother demanding a specialty coffee, without dairy or soy: “Did she believe that if she drank cow’s milk now in the throes of one type of terminal cancer, she would also develop another type of terminal cancer? Did she think switching to almond milk would cure her incurable cancer?” Trying to make sense of this insufferable relationship prompts Carrie to write a self-help book: “A how-to self-help manual. For daughters dealing with their impossible dying mothers.”

But the book doesn’t explore the dealings with impossible mothers so much as explore the hilarity of a grief-induced breakdown. The writing is infused with puns and punctuated with a mish-mash of lists, surveys, pie charts, bold-faced trivia and useful facts about mice. In fact, the inventiveness is part of the novel’s charm. At one point, Carrie muses about cobbling together the book, deciding a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format might work best:

“Wouldn’t human existence be exponentially easier if for every scenario, a set of words would flash before your eyes offering you just two choices? A fifty-fifty chance to do the right thing, every time.”

Adams’ then proceeds to pepper the book with italicized choices, like: “Choose to go for a nighttime jog: turn to the last page of this book and then close the book because you have clearly chosen the wrong book.” Coupled with “Choose to go for a nighttime walk to the gelato shop two blocks away from your house: keep reading, this book is for you.

The biggest convention-breaker Adams uses is a second person narrator. This point of view has its drawbacks, calling immediate attention to itself and implicating the reader. On one hand, though, it works for this particular story because Carrie refuses to face her grief; the use of second person burying Carrie further beneath the rubble of her denial.

However, Carrie is also an “unlikeable” character. In the middle of her nervous breakdown, she’s constantly making poor choices. Like the Madonna-From-the-Eighties outfit she wears to her mother’s funeral. Or lying to her family about losing her job. Or not telling her sixteen year old daughter the truth about her father. Lies get heaped one on top of the other—she blurts out a marriage proposal to her boyfriend to cover up her lie about not working, suggests a trip to Disney World to avoid telling her daughter about the engagement—and, after a while, I grew tired of identifying with Carrie. Instead of loathsome in a compelling way, she became, well, just annoying.

While there are times Adams is downright funny, the strength of the story comes in the flashback scenes in relationship with her mother. The fact that Carrie got pregnant at seventeen, concealed it for seven months. The fact that Carrie’s mother took care of that baby while Carrie went off to college. But these moments are doled out in too-small doses and I didn’t get enough information to appreciate Carrie’s human complexities. Instead she’s mostly there for the sake of the joke. Which always, it seems, is on her.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.