Mother Country, by Irina Reyn

Trigger warning for rape.

What should a mother do? Everyone has ideas about this, even people who aren’t mothers. It seems that, no matter who we are or what culture we’re a part of, we can’t help but have opinions about how women are raising their children. The protagonist of Irina Reyn’s thoughtful, troubling novel, Mother Country, is the target of judgment from friends, nannies, and relatives. Worst of all, Nadezhda’s own daughter judges her mothering. And yet, at every step in this heart-breaking novel, Nadia is absolutely convinced that she’s doing the right thing for her little Larisska.

Nadia has had one all-encompassing mission in life: to keep Larissa safe. This directive has manifested itself in her determination to bring her diabetic daughter from the war-torn western Ukraine to the United States. She tried once, just after the turn of the millennium, only to find that Larissa was too old to travel as her child. At 21, Larissa would have to apply independently. But Nadia’s own application was approved. So, in the interests of saving her child, Nadia made the awful choice of traveling thousands of miles away from her only child, leaving Larissa in her grandmother’s care in their small town. Nadia’s plan is to make as much money as she can and work the American bureaucracy to bring her daughter over.

By the time we meet Nadia—who is working two jobs to try and save money—it’s been years since she left Ukraine and Larissa is almost 30. Nadia is still trying to bring Larissa to the United States, but the years (during which war broke out in western Ukraine) have done a lot to separate the two. Nadia still sees her daughter as a child. In all of Nadia’s reminiscences about Larissa, Nadia always seems to be stopping her daughter from making choices about food, boys, and her future. It’s all done in the name of “saving” Larissa. But, even though I was getting things from Nadia’s point of view, I couldn’t help but wish that Nadia would make the effort to really understand who Larissa is and what Larissa wants.

Mothers will always be mothers, however. If Mother Country teaches us nothing else, it’s that mothers will always try to save their children. The hapless mother Nadia nannies for tries to shape her daughter into an idealized Russian child. The American mothers are all helicopter parents who also want to be their children’s friends. The Russian and Ukrainian women all want their daughters (and each other) to be “safely” married to a male breadwinner. It’s clear from an outside perspective that no one is going to get what they want. But, of course, who’s going to listen to an outsider when it comes to raising children?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for mothers and daughters who don’t understand each other.

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