Overview: Marrying the sharp insights of Jenny Offill with the dark humor of Maria Semple, Motherest is an inventive and moving coming-of-age novel that captures the pain of fractured family life, the heat of new love, and the particular magic of the female friendship -- all through the lens of a fraying daughter-mother bond.
It's the early 1990s, and Agnes is running out of people she can count on. A new college student, she is caught between the broken home she leaves behind and the wilderness of campus life. What she needs most is her mother, who has seemingly disappeared, and her brother, who left the family tragically a few years prior.
As Agnes falls into new romance, mines female friendships for intimacy, and struggles to find her footing, she writes letters to her mother, both to conjure a closeness they never had and to try to translate her experiences to herself. When she finds out she is pregnant, Agnes begins to contend with what it means to be a mother and, in some ways, what it means to be your own mother.

 

Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian Book Chapter One

 

When my mother caught me rummaging in her nightstand, she said, You must never look in there again. She said, Certain things are private. Do you know what private means? I did, but I told her I didn’t, which was maybe my version of what private meant. When something is private, she said, it belongs only to you. From then on, I understood my mother to be private, in how she kept herself to herself, and in how, in my mind, she belonged only to me. I really thought I was entitled to her, to the most intimate parts of her, which seemed to be in that drawer: photos, a Bible, stacks of letters held together with rubber bands, a diary. None of it helped me. Most of it probably wrecked me. But sometimes, that’s how you know something is working. The world may have been destroyed by a flood—but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need the rain.

Dear Mom,
The thing about college is the bodies. They are everywhere. I feel like we were all sent to one place to figure out how to be in one, what to do with the fact of them, and how close and how far to move them in relation to one another. I try to imagine what we might look like from space, clustered and worrying, how we would probably only be discernible in clumps, the solitary ones not registering on the infrared screen or whatever the technology is. I’ve been in some rooms that reek of desperation, that rapey cologne smell of boys sitting around marinating their impulses, their collective ideas about girls like some weird psychic orgy. Those are the rooms, the parties, you run away from. Or to, depending, I guess.
I want to tell you about how many boys I’ve laid under (2) and how both of them felt the same. I want you to come here and wash my sheets and tell me the truth about my clothes, about the people I’ve met. I want you to see me working in the dining hall. I want you to come with me to my classes, comment on my professors, on what they’re making me read. None of this will happen, I know. It wouldn’t happen even if you were another mother. But being the mother you are, it’s not just impractical. It’s impossible. You are not available. You don’t want to be summoned.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my whole life in terms of having grown up at the end of a cul-de-sac. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a certain “not a thru street” psychology to my time here. Everyone seems busy planning their futures, whereas I honestly can’t even imagine tomorrow. I think I like the sense of safety that only a dead end can offer.
There is that picture Dad took on my first day—the last day I saw you—where I’m standing outside the student center, the place they told us would be “command central” or whatever, where we’d be spending all of our time outside of class, checking our mailboxes and praying for packages, or playing fucking PINBALL, or getting quarters for the laundry, or watching movies, or just generally loitering around with our backpacks, being coeds. I never go in there. My roommate, Surprise, whom you guys didn’t get to meet because you left too early—that’s actually her name, by the way, because she was supposed to be a boy but came out a girl—checks my mail for me. In the picture I am squinting and doing that ugly thing with my jaw. I seem to be saying, “1993, what else you got?” Dad took that picture and must have developed the roll because the next week I got it in the mail with a note that said “First day memento, Love Dad.” It’s funny how a picture of me reminds me only of you.
I thought it was odd that he sent it to me, tried to imagine him putting it in an envelope and addressing it—looking up my address, carefully copying it down—and I couldn’t, at least not without feeling sad and sorry for him, the same way I’ve felt watching baggers at the supermarket handling eggs with great care. I guess it was that feeling that prompted me to call him to say thanks. Thanks, too, for the book of stamps he included with the photo. And it was when I asked to speak to you that I knew you were gone.
Anyway, I’ve never had a pen pal, but this seems as good a time as any to try it out. I’m good at remembering details and I have a lot of time to record them. Though “pen pal” suggests a back-and-forth that’s impossible here. Lucky me, then. Now I have unlimited space to talk about my favorite subject besides you: me!!!
Love
ME
(Agnes)