Trigger warning for sexual assault and transphobic violence.
Alex is used to listening to her parents fighting with each other. Her mother is restless and has a quick temper. Her father wants to have a more typical life, where his wife stays home and doesn’t keep secrets. One day in 1989, Alex is wakened early in the morning after one of those fights. This time, Alex’s mother is taking Alex along as she disappears. The Lauras, by Sara Taylor, is a road novel in which Alex finally learns what makes their mother tick—and what home means for people with itchy feet.
For most of The Lauras, Alex has no idea what their mother is after. Ma only gives up her stories about a life in a series of foster homes after her parents screwed things up so much that their children were taken away. Alex learns about a series of women named Laura who became friends or lovers. They also learn about Ma’s unfinished business that she has been putting off for years. The bulk of the book, until the end, Alex just follows along in Ma’s wake, doing the best they can to get by as Ma takes on marginal jobs, rents even more marginal lodgings, and does her best to make the pair of them disappear.
I felt a sense of unvoiced melancholy in most of The Lauras. Alex wants a mother who will pay attention and be a little more traditional. Even at age fifteen, Alex longs for care and stability. Ma, however, is not that kind of mother. Ma is a fierce mother, who holds on to Alex as closely as she as capable. When, late in the novel, Alex is attacked and beaten by a group of students who are determined to find out what Alex’s biological sex is. (Alex doesn’t say whether they are male or female. They prefer androgyny.) Ma turns ferocious in an effort to make sure those students are punished and that the school makes changes for transgender and genderfluid students. The very long road trip, with Ma’s mysterious errands and old acquaintances, pushes Alex into independence and maturity—whether or not Alex wants that.
The Lauras never does the expected thing, which may frustrate some readers. At times it frustrated me. When I thought about why, I realized that I was holding Ma to the standards most society holds for mothers. After they bear a child, a mother’s identity becomes tied to her child’s. We expect a lot of mothers. Most of all, fair or otherwise, we expect them to put their child above everything else. Ma doesn’t do that. Ma has things she must do, important things. She’s redeemed somewhat for fighting for her child, but I was uncomfortable about the mother-child relationship in this book because it’s hard not to see Ma as selfish. At the end of the book, when Alex is legally old enough to choose their own path, they discover that they have the same type of restlessness that Ma does. I find that I can forgive Ma because Alex, narrating from 30 years later, holds no animosity or regrets about their relationship. While seeking out her past, Ma helped Alex find a life on the road less traveled. Like the poet said, this really did make all the difference.