A working mother’s truths

Q&A with Susan Conley, author of the new “Elsey Come Home”

Elsey, artist, wife and mother, has “lost herself,” and she’s well aware how that sounds. “…It seems overdone, and there are four hundred million people living in China on a dollar a day, so cry me a river.” She’s adrift and depressed and ashamed of her feelings, living a privileged life in Beijing with her husband Lukas and their 8- and 7-year old daughters.

In “Elsey Come Home,” Portland author Susan Conley (“Paris was the Place”) gives a startlingly honest voice to working mothers. Elsey’s challenges may be extreme—she’s an expat, she was a rising star in the art world before motherhood put a damper on her career, she’s recovering from a serious illness and she drinks (a lot)—but her mesmerizing sincerity rings a common bell. There’s a distance between her and Lukas she doesn’t know how to address; as she tell us on the novel’s second page, she doesn’t “know how to be in a marriage.” Her children are the loves of her life and also the bane of her existence.

“Whenever I’m in a room and I hear a woman in the corner talking openly about being a mother and working, I try to go listen to her,” Conley says. “Because she’s speaking truths that more women need to hear. I know I needed to hear these truths. The dilemma women face today—to work and somehow fit in time to have babies and take care of those babies while continuing to work, all without subsidized child-care and longer family leave—is not going away. I would say that the pressure is only growing on women. What I hope readers take away is empathy and a keener understanding of women’s hard choices.”

The novel spans a year in Elsey’s life, from the time her husband strongly suggests she attend a week-long yoga retreat called Shashan to come to grips with her drinking problem to the aftermath of that experience. She goes to Shashan, but reluctantly. “I was trying to become someone else. Or to lose the person I’d become.”

Elsey and the author have some things in common: Conley and her husband and two children lived in Beijing, where she was diagnosed with a serious illness. (Conley chronicled her time in China and her fight against breast cancer in her 2011 memoir “The Foremost Good Fortune.”)

Elsey Come Home
Susan Conley
Knopf, 239 pages

Here’s what she has to say about her latest novel:

Q. How did Elsey present herself to you?
A. I wanted to tell the story of a woman who allowed herself to be extremely honest about the part of herself she lost when she had children. When we meet Elsey she’s realized that she doesn’t know to do both things well at the same time: grow her acclaimed painting career and grow her two young girls. When Elsey presented herself to me, she was someone I wanted to talk to at a dinner party, because I knew she had secrets. Someone I partly felt I’d met before: she asks really good questions and seems confident and yet is holding some part of herself back. One of her secrets is that she can’t cohere all the parts of her life.

When Elsey showed up on the page one morning, she kind of scared me, because she was willing to say things that not every woman dares to. Once she started talking, I really stood aside and let her say the things that I think many women want to say on certain days: which is that no one really explained how hard it was to do both things well—parent and work. And in America, we still don’t talk about it enough.

Q. Elsey thinks that both parenting and her art call for a competing “obsession.” What are your feelings on this?
A. I think to make art or to thrive really in any workplace, at times it calls for a certain kind of recklessness that can border on obsessive. Elsey talks about this: that she doesn’t have the recklessness anymore to make her paintings at the level she needs to now that she has kids. She can’t be “obsessed” with both things at the same time: the children and the painting. What she really needs is great expanses of time. Time is like manna to all working parents, and Elsey can’t find enough of it, now that she’s a mother, to really give herself over to her work. I’m not saying that it’s a good thing always—obsession. But it does lead to moments of deep satisfaction and arrival in terms of the work we do, whatever that work is. And I think women aren’t often afforded this time to be obsessed when we’re the primary child-care givers, or when we’re the emotional or organizational hub of our partnerships and homes, even if we aren’t the primary caregivers. Most women I know want more “time” for their work, and they speak of great guilt when the work takes them physically or psychologically away from the kids for longer and longer expanses of time.

Q. The book is billed as portraying “contemporary womanhood.” How do the secondary characters of Mei, Tasmin and the other women in the book represent that?
A. I wanted to make the rustic yoga retreat on the mountain a kind of laboratory for discussions about women’s experiences. These women are there on the mountain for seven days, and in that way they are all to some degree captive, and have to connect and understand one another and listen. Each woman is from a different country, and each has a varied career and experience with motherhood. Mei, who is Chinese, doesn’t have children, and at one point she accuses Elsey of apologizing too much and making excuses for her life and her faltering career. Mei is unapologetic about not having babies and instead making art. Yasmin, who is British, is married with children and is a wildly successful real estate developer, but Elsey struggles to understand some of her compromises. Ulla is a renowned scientist, but has recently divorced.

Q. Why was it important to you to set this novel in Beijing?
A. I wanted to take the reader out of the U.S. and show Elsey and the other foreigners we meet in Beijing as outsiders with the isolation and also the freedom that can mean. The novel really could have been set in any foreign country: the hope was to show the pressures that cultural dislocation brings and also the attending excitements and changes. I also wanted to explore a certain notion of white privilege that can exist among white foreigners in China and then what happens when these foreigners actually get to connect with the Chinese nationals. When I lived in Beijing, its rapid pulse and capacity for chaos made it a great place for people to transform themselves seemingly overnight and also to unravel. By making Elsey a foreigner in Beijing the tension barometer in her life went way up. She doesn’t fully read the social codes and political secrets and subtext. I wanted her to break through the silence that can shadow motherhood and for her to say, this is complicated.

Q. What’s the most recent book you’ve read that you would recommend?
A. Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” is a brilliant book that deftly weaves in crucial conversations about racial discrimination and class and sexism into what might seem at first like a conventional biography. Michelle Obama is willing to talk about the hard parts of being a black woman and a mother in this country. She tells secrets of her personal struggles after her daughters were born. It’s a beautifully written and gorgeously structured manifesto on how to keep trying to make it work: motherhood, career, marriage. It’s also a reminder that we are not alone and that no one gets it right all of the time, but we keep trying.

Amy Canfield is a working mother and a wife and an avid reader who lives in South Portland.

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