A Mother's Tale is quite unlike any other book that I've read, and for that I'm grateful. I'm fascinated by it. In a recent conversation with Kristen Martin at Literary Hub, Lopate was asked about the genre of his book. "I think it’s closest to a play," he said. "And I think it could be staged, in fact."
It does seem to me like a dialogue. Now some people think that dialogues have a relationship to essays, coming out of Plato or Oscar Wilde, and in any case, an essay is something that usually necessitates taking different parts of yourself and talking with each other. But I don’t think of it as essentially an essay, and I don’t think it’s a memoir either. It’s a bit of an oral history, because something that struck me a lot was how her own life was playing against the history of the times—particularly as a woman going through all of these periods.Not an essay, not a memoir. A Mother's Tale does push at the conventional understandings of autobiography, in that it presumes that by listening in on a conversation—which is really, finally, what the book is and what the reader does—the reader can glean essential qualities from the participants, can hear in the back-and-forth, push-pull, personality-clashing of an intimate conversation between a mother and her son something personal, not merely private. On that score, the book succeeds. I do wonder on the confessional nature of the material Frances offers; she and her husband are dead, but Lopate's brother and two sisters are alive, and though much of what Frances unburdens herself of is unlikely to surprise the siblings, some revelations might, or at least go beyond the boundaries of what they would like to have been made public. Lopate doesn't state anywhere in the book that he asked permission of his siblings to publish these conversations. And the book thrives on that matrix of the private and the public: one son listening to his mother speak of family concerns in all of their joy and anguish, in so doing becoming a silhouette of sorts for any child on the long journey from son or daughter to independent adult, still weighted, always weighted, by the burdens of adolescence and of the family dynamic. I've long felt that America's greatest literary subject is the family—the way its definitions are challenged by evolving notions of gender and sexuality, the way the country's size encourages literal distancing and subsequent loss between and among family members, the way immigrant families are sometimes radically affected by assimilation, the way generations fight toward and away from clarity—and A Mother's Tale essays the agonies, secrets, pleasures, and complexities of family in a strangely idiosyncratic, necessary way.
Lopate recently joined his brother Leonard on the latter's WNYC radio show to discuss the book here.