What We Once Believed is the sixth book written by poet and prose author Andrea MacPherson. Her works include three poetry collections—Ellipsis, Away, and Natural Disasters—and two previous novels, When She Was Electric and Beyond the Blue. Natural Disasters was longlisted for the ReLit Award and When She Was Electric placed sixth on CBC Radio’s Canada Reads: People’s Choice. Like Beyond the Blue and When She Was Electric, MacPherson’s most recent novel is set in the past, exploring mother-daughter relationships and the nature of women’s autonomy.
Set in the summer of 1971, What We Once Believed pulls back the sleepy suburban veil drawn across Oak Bay, a residential community just outside Victoria, British Columbia. On quiet Lear Street, 11-year-old Maybe Collins lives with her fierce but loving grandmother Gigi, and wonders at the wider world and the struggles and change erupting into women’s liberation, mass protests against the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement. Maybe watches the protests on television and looks longingly for her mother, Camille Collins, among the gathered rebels and dissidents. It’s the latest iteration of the story Maybe writes about her mother to fill her nine-year absence—one part of the protective cushion of her childhood, like her loving neighbours and lazy summers. But Maybe’s childhood is a door opening to adolescence, and her mother’s return after writing a scandalous book, The Other Mother, is a tantalizing pull over the threshold.
Above all, The Other Mother is about women and especially motherhood. There are absent mothers, like Camille, who had Maybe at the age of seventeen and chose to leave her at the age of 19:
She was not devout, but she was aware of the number of things she’d done wrong, including becoming pregnant at seventeen and refusing to tell anyone who the father was. She wanted that secret for herself … she named the baby Maybe … Maybe I can do this. Maybe I am supposed to be her mother.
Maybe she is not becomes the certainty. Once Camille’s book is published her choice becomes plain: “I couldn’t become trapped, as so many women before me had been trapped by the endless duties of households.” The wavering, questioning mother quickly becomes the bad mother.
Robin Hollis, however, is a good (though flawed) mother. Living across the street from the Collins’ house, Robin is the warm, maternal presence Maybe covets, standing in sharp contrast to Camille:
Maybe knew now that Camille would never be the kind of mother she had envisioned. She would never be like Robin Hollis, baking macaroons or slathering suntan lotion on bare arms, always aware of Phoebe in the easy way Maybe had seen other mothers with their daughters. Ease in the quiet, the everyday.
Yet even Robin is dissatisfied with domesticity. She met her husband, Alan, in college and gave up her nursing education to support his graduate studies and have his baby. While she loves her daughter, she performs her other obligations with resentment and anger because “she had somehow become an extension of Alan—she was now Alan’s wife, never just Robin. She had become flattened out, colourless. And the worst part was, she no idea how to change it.” These are her doubts about being a wife, but she has no doubts about being a mother. She is as unwavering in her commitment to her daughter, Phoebe, as Camille is distant and ambivalent to Maybe.
Robin, Camille, and Maybe all share a connection to the rising tide of women’s liberation. Robin raises her consciousness with the works of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germaine Greer, while Camille has become a symbol of female autonomy and independence with her new book. However, their views of motherhood are profoundly different. Camille “felt her work set her apart from women who were only mothers and who allowed themselves to be defined by such slim, outdated parameters.” For Camille, this translated into her choice to leave. Robin, on the other hand, can acknowledge that she wants “more than laundry hampers and lemon tarts and endless, endless cleaning products stacked in the cupboard… But the idea that children alone were the reason for unhappiness, for duty, for the quagmire of any woman’s complicated emotions, did not feel true to Robin.”
Robin’s disaffections lead her to have an affair with Aidan Quinn, her neighbour and family friend. For Maybe, both women leave her with a growing question of nature of choice for women:
Were these the only options—Maybe could be a mother or artist, mother or writer? Family or independence. Here or there. Or, or, or. Maybe wondered why this had to be or. Why this could not be and. Wasn’t that the point of the women’s movement, after all, to give them the possibility of and?
Indeed, the only other women Maybe knows on Lear Street seem to be bound by the same restrictions. Mysterious and independent Mary Quinn is an artist, but not a mother. Lonely, elderly Mrs. Eames stills waits for her missing husband and longs for the children she didn’t have. The possibility of and is the lingering, large question at the heart of What We Once Believed.
It has a disappointing answer. Camille is not only a bad mother, she is a false feminist. While we aren’t privy to her inner life in the way we are with Robin, Gigi, or even Mary Quinn, we certainly know what the women of Lear Street think of her:
To say Camille didn’t want to be Maybe’s mother—didn’t want to be a mother at all—was too simplistic. To say it was about anger or patriarchy or the strains of society wasn’t correct. To say it was just about Camille herself, about wanting to get attention and fame was the closest [Robin] could manage.
Ultimately, Camille’s answer to the question of and is no. She doesn’t stay and can’t be Maybe’s mother. Yet Robin’s answer is also no. She sacrifices a chance at happiness with Aidan to keep her family together for the sake of her daughter, Phoebe:
Would it be enough for Robin that it had happened, that she’d let herself have this one, pure pleasure in life? Would it be enough to hold on to that memory? She wasn’t sure.
What she did know was that she would have to allow Alan his anger at her betrayal; she would have to hold all of that in her hands, cupping it like too much water. It would not be easy. It would not be fair. But then Robin glanced at Phoebe’s small, tired face beside her father, and she knew she would do it. She smiled at her daughter.
While we expect some transformation from these two women, some unexpected change to their perspectives, or the possibility of being and or both, we instead get a circling back. It’s a closed loop of good-mother, bad-mother. The question of both/and keeps the reader interested and looking for some example for Maybe to look to, a woman she can see as a person, outside of motherhood or the lack thereof or a combination of both. Instead, we see the flat expanse of what we had at the beginning of the novel.
Yet there are places that the novel shines. MacPherson is clearly a poet, and her lyricism makes for engaging prose. As Maybe contemplates Mary Quinn’s response to her mother’s book, for instance, “she knew the words, her desperation, hung between them like a lick of salt air.” There is also a clear tang of authenticity in the nostalgia for childhood innocence and in Robin’s deep desire to maintain that for Phoebe and for Maybe, in her ache to protect them from the fears and uncertainties of adulthood.
Maybe does, in some ways, transform. She no longer clings to her idealized version of Camille, doesn’t wait for some word from her after she leaves for the second time. She purges herself of her once plain longing for Camille’s approval. Camille becomes a ghost once more.
Caitlin Press | 240 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1987915327