Novelist Eliza Minot celebrates the magnificent act of mothering.
Eliza Minot sits in the corner of Elitist Coffee in South Orange, surveying the view its second story perch allows. She blends seamlessly in with the crowd of mothers, gig workers and artsy types that frequent the café mid-weekday-morning, dressed casually and unobtrusively but for a bright orange stocking cap. On another head and in another place this headgear might signify a hunter; here it is either a singular nod to fashion or, more likely, grabbed from the family coat hooks on the way out the door as a last-second attempt to ward off the cold of a late February day.
Down below a woman holds the hand of a small child; the woman seems too old to be the mother; a caregiver, a grandmother, perhaps? The child drops something. The woman bends to pick it up.
“Every single person,” Minot says, “has a mother.”
She is quick to note that she is not necessarily talking about a woman who gives birth to a child; she is referring, instead, to the people – no matter their gender or blood connection – who take it upon themselves to raise a child, with all the love, monotony, worry and work it entails: the one who, in Minot’s words, “is paying attention like that.”
It seems fair to say that motherhood, and the contemplation of it, is Minot’s life work. With her husband, Eric Price, she has raised four children in Maplewood, the youngest of whom is now a junior at Columbia. She is also, however, a well-regarded novelist. This spring, she was given the Maplewood Literary Award as part of the township’s Ideas Festival. And all her novels in one way or another are at least partially about mothers and motherhood. The latest – In the Orchard, which was released April 25 – revolves around the ruminations of a sleep-deprived mother of four young children during a single day when the baby is but two weeks old.
In prose both profound and poetic, she manages to record and relate all those small moments of motherhood that pass unremarked and unremembered.
Anyone who has raised a child is likely to read the book with tinges of wonder and regret. How fast that time goes! How difficult it is to recall the details! How is Minot able not only to remember but to find the time to write it all down?
She says one of the motivations of the book was to recall those heady, busy days of being a woman with small children. “I don’t even know what aspect (of motherhood) I was trying not to forget, but I did want to remember.”
Although she did not set out to pen a feminist manifesto, she did want to write a book that only a woman, and a mother, could. In addition to everything else, she says, “It’s also a shout out to the moms. There’s a lot of mystery and poetry (in mothering) that doesn’t really get applauded.”
Like other noted novelists who focus on a single day and a single life, Minot’s narrative suggests that there is nothing so noble as a considered life and, in this case, nothing so meaningful as raising another human being (or four).
It is not the novel she originally intended to write.
The seeds of the novel date to 2008, and the early days of the financial crisis, when Minot opened the newspaper to see a headline about the rise in defaults among young families and homeowners. She quickly wrote 70 pages about a family struggling under home equity debt.
And she quickly sold the manuscript, too, although amid the great recession she earned less than what she might have, had the book market been more robust. Her agent suggested that she draft the book in total and then try again. But with the economic situation what it was, she says, and her mothering duties at full pitch, she was “not rushing up to the attic” to write.
Instead, she started teaching writing at the college level, enrolled at Rutgers Newark and eventually got her master’s – all of which, she is convinced, was more than worthwhile. “It was awesome.”
It also allowed her to be a more-or-less full-time mom. Her youngest was born in 2006, and it wasn’t until 2020 and Covid that she turned again to her book. “I really hunkered down,” she recalls, concentrating when most of the world could not. Although all the kids were back in the house, she would get up at 5 or 5:30 and write uninterrupted for two hours.
The story had changed, outgrown its original timeline and ambitions. The mom of In the Orchard still worries about money, as many young mothers do, but that worry is contextualized by the knowledge that it plays a poor second fiddle to time.
She said she wrote believing that the work of motherhood makes for interesting reading: “It is tedious, but it’s also not tedious. It’s wonderful. It’s dreadful, but also wonderful.”
Like her protagonist Maisie, Minot is mother to two boys and two girls, though in slightly different birth order. And she freely admits she has cribbed a bit from her own life. When she shared the manuscript with her older son, he remarked that it was “weird to read about our childhood.”
His mother sees it differently. “Yes, it’s certainly based on (my life) but it’s not me. It’s a little piece of the mood, of the vibe.”
Mothers are not merely a subject that intrigues her because she has spent so much of her life being one. Like her protagonist in In the Orchard, Minot also lost her mother at an early age. She was just seven years old when her mother was killed in an automobile accident.
Her first book, The Tiny One, was also a fictionalized act of remembering, both that mother and the little girl who mourned her. That she should turn that act of memory into a novel seemed natural to her. She is the youngest of seven; two of her older siblings also are novelists, and her stepsister, who she grew up with, is author Lily King.
Her father was from an old Boston family and a banker, but Minot says he had a way with words. “Deep down, I think he was a writer.” Her mother also loved words and was a great reader. And she was just 13 when her older sister Susan became an almost immediate literary sensation with her first novel. Having grown up hearing the clack of Susan’s typewriter, Minot reasoned that writing novels “seemed like a real thing to do.”
Besides, she confesses, “it was a way of coping.”
So, it seems, is family.
Asked who had filled the role of mother for her after her mom’s death, Minot replies “my older sisters (roughly 19, 21, and 22 at the time) stepped into that space, and my dad too, as best they could.”
And eventually, one imagines, it was her own act of becoming a mother that filled the void. In 2006, pregnant with her last child and just before her second novel was published, she told The New York Times that “I think a good amount of having four kids for me is to give them (and myself, I guess) the kind of childhood that I didn’t have. Assuming I don’t get mowed over by a bus. But one never knows. And if that happens, they’ll have each other, just like I have my siblings.”
Fortunately, Minot is still here. Because of that, the world has a novel that speaks to the awe and poetry of motherhood, and four children in Maplewood have a mother who (as it’s easy to tell from reading her work) is present, loving, and wonderful, paying attention to it all.
Tia Swanson also comes from a large family and is a mother of four. She knows the wonder of it.