By Ashley Audrain
Is my child’s behavior normal? It’s a parenting question for the ages, particularly at a time when a certain type of parent (present company included) frets over every childhood quirk, no matter how mundane. Does the preschooler with a predilection for hitting need a professional intervention, or maybe just a taekwondo class? Is the kid who drops naps but not tantrums a future rageaholic? This sort of hand-wringing, at its most extreme, is at the center of Ashley Audrain’s taut, chilling debut novel, “The Push.”
Blythe Connor is reluctant to become a parent — understandably so. Her own mother abandoned her when she was 11, after years of cruelty. Her grandmother, also abusive, departed in a more gruesome way: by hanging herself from a tree in the front yard. Blythe is primed, perhaps even genetically programmed, for maternal struggle. “I think the baby hates me,” she says just days after giving birth to her first child, a daughter named Violet. Their relationship goes downhill from there.
Blythe’s postpartum experience is familiar, and Audrain renders it flawlessly. Breastfeeding isn’t a spontanous success, for one thing; a nurse “stood over us and stared at Violet and my huge brown nipple as she tried to latch again.” Blythe struggles to adapt to motherhood and she sees seismic shifts in her relationship to her husband, Fox. Noticeably absent is any sense of joy or wonder. “I was so disappointed she was mine,” Blythe says of Violet. She admits to ignoring her baby’s cries for hours on end.
It would be easy to chalk up these difficulties to postpartum depression if it weren’t for the periodic reminders of Blythe’s traumatic family history, woven through the book in stand-alone chapters. Blythe’s mother hit her and often disappeared for a night or two at a time. Blythe’s grandmother routinely locked Blythe’s mother out of the house after school and once held her head underwater in the bathtub, nearly drowning her.
Audrain nimbly stokes the mystery as to whether nature or nurture is at play in Violet’s increasingly hostile disposition. When a toddler standing near Violet on a play structure falls to his death, Blythe’s suspicions intensify. But Fox, ever protective of their daughter, won’t hear of it. And since Blythe herself is more than a little off-kilter, it’s hard to know whose side to take. She’s a classic unreliable narrator who, after her marriage to Fox collapses, lurks outside his new home and pulls a “Single White Female” move on his new partner.
The book is written almost entirely in the second person as one long missive from Blythe to Fox. It serves both as a post-mortem of their relationship and as an urgent call for him to reckon with Violet’s disturbing behavior. .
Audrain has a gift for capturing the seemingly small moments that speak volumes about relationships. While Blythe was in labor with Violet, Fox was “standing two feet away, drinking the water the nurse had brought for me.” And a couple of years later, after Violet’s cries interrupt a sexy shower, their relationship has moved to a phase where Fox “tossed me a towel like my teammate in a locker room.”
Audrain conjures the disintegration of marriage, along with the legacy of intergenerational trauma and the pain of parental grief, so movingly that the extent to which Blythe goes off the rails doesn’t seem that far-fetched — which is saying a lot since it involves donning a wig in order to befriend Fox’s new partner, and then lying pathologically to her. Blythe’s experiences are relatable on one level and full-stop alarming on another, a hallmark of the psychological thriller genre that’s executed with gripping precision here.
Occasionally the second person gets repetitive, and I found myself longing to hear Fox’s voice — or anyone else’s, really. But the chapters examining Blythe’s family’s past provide texture, and the narrative feels more balanced once Fox’s partner is tricked into dishing on their life, even asking Blythe for parenting advice. Finally, someone thinks she’s a good mother.