“Some people are meant to be mothers, and some people are meant to be free” (98). The first time I encountered these words, spoken by protagonist Missy in The Spectacular, they resonated deeply: I read most of Zoe Whittall’s new novel as my newborn son slept on my chest. For the first several weeks of his life, my child would neither sleep by himself nor take milk from a bottle, which meant my body had to be constantly available to him as both food source and mattress—a sudden lack of autonomy I found bewildering. While my captivity was the (blessedly temporary) kind of the pandemic-era newborn parent, in Whittall’s novel the prison of motherhood is social and political in nature: reproductive injustice, unevenly divided domestic labour, and thin communal supports make motherhood feel impossible not only to Missy, but also to her mother, Carola, and her paternal grandmother, Ruth. When the story opens, Missy and Carola are estranged. Several years before, Carola and her then-husband started a farm commune called Sunflower, an intentional community founded on egalitarian values through which Carola hoped to escape her abusive childhood. But Carola found that the commune’s utopian intent did not align with its reality, wherein the women worked, and the men drank. So she escaped, leaving behind her teenaged daughter.
Many years later, Missy also runs away from the values that informed her childhood by becoming a musician in the punk rock scene of the late 1990s. This is where the novel’s title comes from: Missy wants to “experience every spectacular, vivid detail of life on the road,” which she can only do by crossing “the country with the freedom of any man my age” (15). To be a man is to be free; to be a woman is to be trapped by social obligations, by fertility, by motherhood, But the group Missy finds herself in has disturbing parallels to the Sunflower community Carola fled. Missy sleeps around, just like her male bandmates, but unlike them, she has a reputation for being “pretty wild” (120). Missy encounters men who are married with children, but she knows she could never be a mother and a musician at the same time. Both the commune and the punk rock world purport to be alternative social spaces. Yet both entrench conservative hierarchies as deeply as the Catholic world of 1950s Montreal in which Carola grew up or 1920s Turkey, into which Ruth was born.
This is the silent pain that defines both Missy and Carola in the early part of the book. To achieve or retain any modicum of freedom, both women must spurn community. In particular, they must spurn community with other women. Carola and her daughter are both queer but closeted, which is, in Missy’s case, a direct result of the punk rock scene being made up of “mostly straight white dudes” with undercurrents of homophobia (92). In this, her fourth novel, Whittall skillfully weaves these storylines together, originally casting Carola and Missy as opposites and gradually revealing how each woman has been shaped by a similar set of circumstances despite their divergent paths.
Whittall’s interest in drawing parallels between mother and daughter sometimes occurs at the expense of character depth. Missy is a cellist in a rock band, yet her choice of both instrument and music genre goes underexplored—she confesses to choosing the cello in high school because she could “hide my body behind it” (12), but we learn nothing of why the instrument has become her “beautiful sidekick” (149) or what makes her a “cello prodigy” (120). Similarly, Carola becomes a renowned meditation teacher, but we learn nothing of her practice’s spiritual or philosophical underpinnings. Why did Whittall choose such distinctive careers for her characters only to leave these vocations as little more than window dressing? Similarly, Whittall’s choice of first-person narration seems mismatched with her desire for exposition. The testimonial I of first-person narration can foster intimacy with the reader: we are meant to imagine that we are encountering the character’s memories and thoughts directly as they unfold. Yet Whittall’s characters overexplain. At one point, Missy recalls that “Taylor (the only kid my age on the commune) and I used to be allowed to run around all afternoon” (67). Here, Whittall is clearly providing a detail she wants the reader to know, but it feels incongruous coming from Missy, who in this moment is recalling her childhood only to herself.
However, the unevenness that occasionally makes for frustrating reading in The Spectacular succeeds at the level of plot. Missy and Carola come together, then drift apart again; they become close as older adults, although the sting of Carola’s abandonment never entirely goes away. By the novel’s conclusion, each woman has come to terms with her sexuality, but years of denial mean neither finds long-term queer partnership. Whittall’s choice to leave the character’s relationships in a state of messy imperfection makes the story feel true to life.
To be in community is to be bound somehow or somewhere, which is especially true in the case of parenthood. Having a child is an act of community because doing so makes one fundamentally accountable to another person. The problem—one that Whittall deftly probes in this novel—is that this accountability falls disproportionately on mothers. Motherhood and freedom can indeed coexist, with the right supports, with the right forms of accountability to mothers as well as to children. This is the point Whittall seems interested in making at The Spectacular’s conclusion. We leave these characters with Carola having learned how to mother Missy in a new way, and Missy embarking on her own transition into parenthood within a community that she has created for herself.
Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.