The Mother of All Things by Alexis Landau: book review

The Mother of All Things by Alexis Landau

Overview: Ava is done with her life. Her teaching position at the college and her in-progress book are always put on the back burner to compensate for her husband's whims and continue caring for the children mostly alone. When he runs off to Bulgaria to film an independent movie, Ava stays behind in LA to finish the school year before taking the kids to Bulgaria to see if her marriage is worth saving. In Bulgaria, Ava reconnects with her past life in academia and starts taking unconventional steps to put herself first once again. Mother of All Things attempts to make important points about the realities of being a woman and a mother in society today and how the progressive veneer simply excuses just how little has changed without fully executing on any of its promises. Overall: 3

Characters: 3 I had a really difficult time with this book for a lot of reasons, but the characters are a big part of that. It's hard to connect with Ava since she's largely presented through info-dumps, and we're hardly invited into her interior world. We're given plenty of her very valid complaints about her life and her marriage, but we're never invited to feel these deeply beyond the surface realities. The kids are even worse. They seem to simply exist as plot devices. The younger brother only really appears to create chaos or say oddly profound, manufactured lines that don't sound like a kid at all. The older newly teenage daughter is poorly used as a foil to Ava, and most of her existence revolves around the dramatic question of when she'll get her period. Then we have Kasper, Ava's Swedish husband. The issue is that Landau gives us plenty of reasons to think that Kasper is a neglectful father and a trash husband, but we don't get all that much insight into why Ava does want to stay with him or make the marriage work, and that left a giant hole in the novel. Further, the characters that change Ava's perspective in Bulgaria are also never quite developed beyond their two key defining traits. The characterization in this book ended up looking like Swiss cheese. 

Plot: 3 I struggled with continuing to read this book because there was very little pushing it forward. It opens with a strange prologue that makes no sense. It turns out to be an excerpt of the dramatic climax that you experience in context towards the end of the book. But it truly makes no sense to the reader when it's given as the opening passage. I was super hooked by the premise of a woman asserting her voice and her personhood within the all consuming world of marriage and motherhood, but the book is too unfocused to deliver on that. The plot progression is stilted and slow, something the writing doesn't make up for. After reconnecting with her old professor and joining her reenactments of ancient rituals, Ava starts changing extremely fast. There's very little scene and heaps of exposition in this novel, so it's hard to feel the urgency or connect with any of the progressions, and it's often repetitive in external and internal conflict and action. 

Also, the book has a simultaneous sub-plot of chapters that Ava is writing as her book on Ancient Greece. These chapters are even more awkward than the main text, and I could never figure out why they were ultimately included. I can see how they were meant to mirror the present day, show how little the world has changed, but it hasn't succeeded in truly making these links in an additive way.

Writing: 3 I am shocked that this book got published with so little written in scene, almost no dialogue, and a very chaotic construction (and not in a fun way). Almost everything that happens in the book is summarized, making it very hard to connect with the events or characters in the book. It steals all the urgency and the ability to get to know the characters more deeply. There is occasionally a line of dialogue sprinkled in and thrown in quotes, but it all felt extremely cardboard. There was no natural flow and no believability that the line actually originated with the character it was delivered by. There's also massive info-dumps, both about the characters and their backstory and about the ancient history that Ava studies. These tangents just further slowed the book down. Eventually, I just had to start skimming to get through.

There was so much promise in the summary copy that the book just never manages to realize. It's largely a stilted, manufactured feeling story that never quite found its heart, access point, or a true idea of its argument beyond the surface.

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