When our children can’t feed or dress themselves, when they fall and skin their knees or become feverishly ill, of course they need us. But as mothers, how long should we be asked to put our children’s needs first? Even after they’re fully grown adults? Even as we face our own deaths? These are among the questions that drive Kristina Riggle’s debut novel, Real Life and Liars, an engaging drama focusing on a mother and her three adult children, told with great humanity and a deft comic touch.
Mirabelle Delouvois-Zielinski, Mira for short, is a juicy, pot-smoking grandma with a saucy outlook — and breast cancer. As the novel begins, she’s decided to opt out of the surgery that could save her life. “If I have to go down, fine. But I’m going down with both tits swinging,” she vows. Her husband, Max, the author of popular potboilers, passionately disagrees with her decision, but “after that one terrible argument, he hasn’t breathed a word about it. He hasn’t pressed, suggested, guilted or pushed me toward getting my breast sliced off,” Mira notes. Their three children are ignorant of their mother’s illness as they gather to celebrate their parents’ 35th wedding anniversary in Michigan.
This setup alone could be enough to trigger plenty of dramatic tension, but Riggle doesn’t stop there. Each of the children, meticulously drawn, is in the throes of some kind of crisis themselves, and their stories and their relationships — with one another and their partners — are satisfyingly rounded out.
Katya, the oldest, has three kids, her own design business and a life that is outwardly successful. Despite her capable veneer, however, she often sounds like someone who needs her mother or soon will. Just below the surface, her marriage to Charles has gone stale, her stress level is high, her drinking habits are becoming dangerous and new problems loom right around the corner.
She heard Charles’s heavy feet come in through the front door. He must have had to hunt for those files because he’s been gone an hour and a half, and the drive is only twenty minutes. Katya suspects — no, believes with a cold, tomblike certainty — that his long absence has something to do with Tara.
He clumps down into the family room, and Katya notes — but at the moment does not much care — that he has tracked in leaves and grass clippings onto her ivory carpet.
“Hitting the wine already,” he asks, not looking at her, as he pages through the Caller ID on their home phone.
“I’m not hitting it. I’m having a glass to relax. I had a hard day.”
“Every day is a hard day,” he answers without emotion, and walks back up the three steps to the main floor of the house. “I’m going to bed,” he calls over his shoulder.
Ivan, Mira’s son, a struggling songwriter, considers himself to be the mirror opposite of his older sister. He is not achieving his professional goals, can’t keep a girlfriend, seems to be running after the wrong women anyway, and may be a little too gentle for his own good, at least as it applies to his own life. He often seems to have not quite grown up yet. As he tries to figure out his future, he turns to his mother.
Ivan flops himself down on the bed, facing Mira again. “What is with these women? Don’t they want a guy who’s dedicated, who listens to them and wants to be there for them?”
“Sometimes I think you were born too late, like your soul was meant for the turn of the previous century.” Mira crosses the room to him and rumples his hair, just like she used to when he was a little boy and only as high as her waist. “The right girl will know how wonderful you are. Just make sure you keep your eyes open.”
“Oh, they’re open, Mom. Wide open.”
Mira hugs him to her chest suddenly, as he sits on the bed, and she stands above him. Her clutch is tight, there’s a fervent quality to it that Ivan doesn’t understand. And just like that, she straightens up, blows a kiss, and walks out.
And the youngest, 21-year-old Irina, is coming home with news to share: after a brief affair, she’s pregnant, and wedded to a man more than twice her age who she isn’t sure she actually loves enough to have married. She’s already shown poor judgment in men, and definitely needs her mother. “How can you do this to me?” she asks when her mother reveals her decision not to treat the cancer. “I have a baby coming. I need your support, Mom.”
The voices that make up this novel, told in multiple, rotating viewpoints, are idiosyncratic and alive. Every family member is flawed, funny and ultimately human. They need their mother, these grown children, and their needs still matter to Mira. But, Mira wonders, what about her own desires? Can she be allowed to die if that’s her choice, rather than lose a breast? What are her ultimate responsibilities toward those who love her? As these questions linger, a real tornado arrives to raise the crescendo of the emotional storm in the household. When it departs, it leaves in its wake a downed large tree that shadowed the house, and this inadvertently alters the light, as well the way in which family members see one another. Opinions may not be transformed, but minds are opened a bit wider. In the end, Riggle’s heartwarming novel, which includes an author’s interview and other terrific extras, is an engrossing read for anyone interested in the complexities of mother-child relationships.