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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Same as It Ever Was’ is a witty, sympathetic take on motherhood

By Ron Charles Washington Post

Women have never had to look far for condescending advice about why they should embrace the joys of child-rearing, but lately the guidance has sounded unusually suspect.

In March, during a speech on International Women’s Day, noted family guy Vladimir Putin declared, “Motherhood is an exquisite purpose for women.”

Two months later, Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker chimed in with his own wisdom. Addressing “the ladies” graduating from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., the 28-year-old football player said, “Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world.”

And some brave cultural warrior who hides behind the pseudonym Peachy Keenan has just published “Domestic Extremist,” a hammy collection of anti-feminist cant. “We don’t need more daycare subsidies,” Keenan claims. “Most babies are already born with high-quality affordable childcare built right in - otherwise known as ‘their mother.’”

None of these reactionary voices – or others who have floated up recently in the bog of conservative sanctimony – has anything fresh to offer. But they do suggest the unsettled position of so many women struggling to reconcile their aspirations with the demands of raising children.

This is, unsurprisingly, a subject that female novelists have explored at least since Edna Pontellier experienced an “awakening” and walked into the sea. Almost a century later, the wife and mother in Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years” also wandered off on the beach, but at least she walked away from the water. This is progress.

As a society, though, we’re still stubbornly deluded about the experience of motherhood, which has inspired a subgenre of stories about women who, in extremis, leave their children either temporarily or permanently. Just last month, Miranda July published “All Fours,” an erotic novel about an artist who pretended to go to New York but was really holed up in a hotel room just a few miles from her husband and child. It’s hilarious and provocative.

Now, as a variation on this theme, comes Claire Lombardo’s “Same as It Ever Was.” But don’t be misled by the weary tone of that title. This is a big novel, engaging enough to entertain you through the summer and thoughtful enough to justify its considerable heft. While many novels are too long, “Same as It Ever Was” takes full advantage of its 500 pages to traverse the whole life of Julia Ames, a woman who makes peace with motherhood slowly and haphazardly.

The story comes to us in two twisted strands, a double helix of past and present. As the wife of an adoring husband and the mother of a bright preschooler, Julia should be enjoying languid days of maternal bliss. But instead, Lombardo writes, “she felt entirely unmoored, brooding, usually while staring pensively into the middle distance like a disenfranchised Victorian nursemaid.” There’s no use complaining, of course, not when her husband, Mark, has to work so hard. “Mark was more vocally allowed to rue his responsibilities; that was just the way the world worked.” Julia, meanwhile, must uncomplainingly endure “the loneliness of motherhood; the deadly ennui of the day-in-day-out.”

This is, indeed, the same as it ever was, but Lombardo’s witty, sympathetic take on motherhood exudes the sharp scent of fermented apple juice and a full diaper. “It was a cliché to be this person,” Julia realizes, which only makes her self-pity sting more. “She got bored just thinking about it, the sadness over nothing, the fact that she was resentful of the easiest life in the world.” And what’s worse, all the other young mothers and their early-achieving toddlers are thriving. Lombardo seems to understand from experience what it feels like to join a playgroup in which every other woman was a “pure Ativanned Stepford brahmin, luxuriously sweatpanted and improbably gaunt, a ponytail that looked like it would whisper about you when you left the room.”

In that fragile state of despair, Julia attracts the notice of an older woman named Helen who spots her crying at the botanic garden. Helen invites her out for ice cream, then over to her large, gracious house. Sage and maternal, she’s a model of competence - a lawyer who raised five sons and maintains an idyllic marriage. What’s most astonishing to Julia is that this superwoman “actually enjoyed her life.”

Helen gently draws out Julia’s anxieties and reassures her that she’s not a sociopath, that what she’s feeling is perfectly normal, valid, even endurable. With the tweedy ease of upper-class confidence, she tells Julia that her little boy “deserves to have a mom who isn’t miserable.” Helen’s personality and home life are so inspiring that Julia’s depression fades even as she begins “drifting further and further from her husband.”

I love the way an atrial flutter of suspicion beats through these scenes of Julia’s heartfelt devotion to her new friend. Surely, Helen is just mentoring a younger mother who needs encouragement – right? – but Lombardo plays across such a symphonic range of emotions that all kinds of dark tones can be heard rumbling beneath the surface of this intense relationship.

And then Julia meets Helen’s youngest son, an “unfathomably handsome man-child” who’s having some adjustment issues of his own. Does he work part time at a used-book store? Does he wear flannel shirts with the sleeves “pushed up to the sexiest degree possible”? Of course he does. In fact, his musculature strikes Julia as so pronounced that she’s reminded of “a college anatomy course,” which suggests she’s either sex-starved or an osteopath. In any case, Julia starts to wonder if this gorgeous man could be the solution to her twin burdens of maternal failure and matrimonial loneliness.

All this becomes even more fascinating two decades later when we see that old romantic crisis lurking in the shadows of Julia’s present life. Still married to Mark, she’s now the mature mother of a graduate student and a moody teenager. But this is not an ideal home; it’s a real one. “They are a family,” the narrator notes, “whose clock is always slightly askew, affections misplaced and offenses outsized.”

In Lombardo’s carefully structured plot, we come to see how Julia has toiled to move beyond the influence of her own bad mother, a woman who once felt trapped by poverty, unreliable men and a daughter she never really liked. She had no intention of cramming her lumpy inadequacies into the one perfect form of selfless, buoyant motherhood – part June Cleaver, part Pietà.

For Julia, that maternal legacy instills a determination to be different, to find some way to love her children – and maybe, someday, even herself. But when fresh challenges scratch beneath the surface of her settled life, old anxieties about her fitness as a mother swell up again.

Lombardo has such a fine eye for the weft and warp of a family’s fabric. She understands the chemistry of that special epoxy of irritation and affection that keeps a marriage glued together. One finishes “Same as It Ever Was” with the satisfaction of knowing this complicated woman well – and the poignant disappointment of having to say goodbye.