look how happy i’m making you BY POLLY ROSENWAIKE (DOUBLEDAY, 2019)
Reviewed by Gregorio Tafoya
“1. Lack of Interest in Your Baby”
So starts the quietly explosive “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression”, a thick middle piece to Polly Rosenwaike’s short story collection, Look How Happy I’m Making You—best said in a sleep-deprived, low, gravelly tone.
Much like the characters in Polly Rosenwaike’s debut, I feel wholly inadequate and ill prepared for the task at hand. They are entrusted with the nobler task, that of motherhood, and I, a male with no child rearing experience, am attempting to review their explorations. When I get sentimental about fatherhood aspirations, it is always the highlight reel of playing catch in the backyard and teaching the finer points of auto mechanics—a concept I hardly have any grasp on. The scenes in Rosenwaike’s book are far from the highlight reel of any parenthood.
Aside from the obvious themes of motherhood and gender roles, relationships are the umbrella spokes that tie these stories together. There are the taut kinfolk relationships of sisters—one who wants a baby but can’t, and one who doesn’t want but can; the overbearing mother-in-laws, the placating mothers, the long-distance friendships. But Rosenwaike is best when she turns her pen towards the fringes of motherhood, like in “White Carnations,” a story centering around a group of multi-generational friends united, AA style, by their motherless and childless status.
“We didn’t have mothers anymore, nor were we mothers ourselves, so we got together on Mother’s Day at a down-and-out pub frequented by gay men and regular drunks.”
Of course, in a book about motherhood Rosenwaike doesn’t shy away from sex.
Our narrator, Karyn, is a young, single white female—who parties at a clip appropriate for her age—and is impregnated by a traveling French man who is best described as not a great dancer, “but he was determined.” Rosenwaike acknowledges the male role in perpetuating motherhood, but there is a muted comedy to it, as in this moment from Karyn: “this moment when sex began with an almost stranger was always something of a puzzlement.” There is none of the sensationalism of carnality that would be found, say, in a Leila Slimani book, though arguably, motherhood is a central theme of Slimani’s ouevre as well. The pangs and aches of pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, and post-partum antics are too much in focus, for sex to have any role other than a sterile, utilitarian one.
Look How Happy I’m Making You is a sobering look at womanhood in all of its less than glamorous phases, but that is not to say that it is not a beautiful portrait. What makes theses stories shine with brilliance is their individuality, as if Rosenwaike has divided herself in twelve equal parts, into the brains and bodies of these all-female protagonists, while still remaining wholly herself.
What Rosenwaike has done is create a book where the minutia of motherhood is on full display, while also suggesting motherhood’s inevitability with inaudible provocation, as when the protagonist in “The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy” gives us a crash course in birth control statistics in one breathless sentence:
“The ninety-one percent figure is for ‘typical use’— meaning women who skip pills, who get wrapped up in the their daily lives and make a little mistake sometimes.”
Every woman wants to be a mother, a home economics teacher once told the famous novelist Donna Tartt. LHHIMY, isn’t the definite answer to that assumption, but what it does answer, it does with it’s tongue firmly in cheek, daring you to contradict the realities that it paints. Rosenwaike is responsible for this gorgeous deconstruction and so are her characters: “Dissembling women, who decide to stop taking the pill without a word to their lovers.”