The cover art of Brandy Ferner’s first novel, Adult Conversation, depicts a disheveled woman with trinkets of child-rearing stuck in her hair: shopping bags, video game consoles, band-aids, lolly-pops, toothbrushes, mermaids, and more. Those objects are all little glimpses into the physicality of being a parent, but in this novel, Ferner dives deeper into what it means, explicitly, to be a mother. The protagonist of the novel, April, has a lot of people in her life trying to define her identity as a mother, and these different voices fight for space in April’s head. Her friend and fellow mother, Danielle, is constantly trying to drag April out of the house, suggesting a babysitter as a cure-all for parenting problems. April’s mother, Marnie, sends passive-aggressive texts and consistently refuses to acknowledge the difficulty of raising small children. Then there’s April’s own voice, which drives the narrative with quips like, “Here I was, once again, in the role of the master juggler. Why the hell did I do this to myself again? My head was right. My heart is an idiot.” At the beginning of the novel, April may not know who exactly she wants to be as a mother, but she knows what she feels: completely overwhelmed.
Adult Conversation is centered on April’s journey from feeling to knowing. Ferner has crafted the perfect character for this journey, with April’s punchy sense of humor, her no-nonsense outlook on life, and the persistence of her desire to balance being the best mom and remaining her true self. This unique voice allows the story to touch on heavy subjects (the mother wound, marital issues, how stress affects mother-child relationships), while keeping a hilarious voice full of emojis, sarcasm, self-deprecation, and wit.
April tells her story in a stream of consciousness voice. The reader lives in April’s head, feeling the interruptions from her toddler, Violet, and reacting to texts from her husband and mother. April works hard, and most outsiders would recognize her as an amazing parent. April, however, like many modern mothers, feels “less than.” A lot of this worry stems from mixed messages and social expectations:
I was no stranger to self-analysis. It snuck up on me while shaving my legs in the shower or waiting in the car-pool line. I thought they were fleeting thoughts, mental chatter, but today I started believing something was really wrong with me. Modern motherhood looked so much like anxiety, which was which? Maybe Violet was an easy-going toddler and I had been too frazzled to see it until today, next to Owen. Maybe I was the unpredictable one—maybe I was the problem.
At the beginning of the novel, April knows she feels overwhelmed, but she doesn’t understand why. Truthfully, her head is spinning and reeling in shame. She feels ashamed that she doesn’t want to sleep with her husband, ashamed that she can’t bring herself to hire a babysitter, ashamed that she doesn’t look or feel as beautiful as she once did, and ashamed that she sometimes feels angry at her kids. What she doesn’t recognize is that this constant self-doubt is warranted. Everyone around April is saying things like, “I just don’t see you as needing therapy. You are such a good mom. It feels like you’re overreacting.” But Ferner has created a realistic mother, someone who needs more than a spa day to find balance and understanding in her life. Because April’s mother often left her with babysitters and at daycares when she was a child, a mother wound often drives her parenting choices. April fears the potential psychological damage of allowing distance from her own children.
When she finally meets June, her Barbie-esque therapist and soon-to-be Vegas adventure buddy, April is able to start her process, from feeling ashamed and overwhelmed to knowing that a balance of autonomy and motherhood is possible. In this first meeting, it is clear that Ferner has a gift for creating honest dialogue between these two seemingly different, but surprisingly familiar characters. Although slightly put off by June’s manicured appearance, April bares her heart in one of the most honest moments of the novel:
I don’t feel depressed, or whatever I think depressed is supposed to feel. But I also don’t enjoy being with my beautiful and needy children—namely my toddler—for thirteen hours straight every single day for years on end while my husband has a career and gets to shit alone in a building with only adults. Soooo, I guess I just want to know if what I’m feeling is normal or if I’m a whiny, ungrateful bitch who should just make peace with motherhood and be happy.
Although she was originally unsettled by June’s ultra-organized office, April finds herself able to be honest about her conflicting feelings. After listening to all this, June responds, “It doesn’t make you ungrateful to need a break from that role.” Those simple words allow April to melt in her comfort and understanding. In June, Ferner created a safe person for April, in front of whom she can wrestle with expectations and lay them out on the table without shame. June works as a passage to April’s knowing that there is some relief possible. This conversation is just the first step for April, and, eventually, for June as well.
Feeling the mother wound and exploring shame in a therapist’s office sounds like heavy work, and it is. However, at no point does Adult Conversation feel like a wet blanket. April’s honesty has an edge to it, as though at any new turn of events, she might say WTF. Period panties are real. So are Cheeto dust-covered face slaps from toddlers and the pure delight in a hotdog from Costco’s food court. Ferner isn’t going to shy away from mentioning any of these things. Much of modern advice for mothers is surface-level hand waving and Ferner is poking fun at it.
In the last third of the novel, April’s life takes an unexpected, hilarious spin when she’s offered an opportunity to put her parenting duties on hold, which she eagerly accepts. Her therapist, June, cracks from her own personal pressure and breaks down boundaries between them. The two women had accidentally met outside the office during a stressful episode where April steps in to help with one of June’s children; the vulnerability of the situation requires that June reluctantly share some of her own insecurities. June invites April to Las Vegas to catch June’s cheating husband. Strippers in disguise, casual flirting, and a healthy dose of laughs ensue. At one point in Vegas, April walks into what she believes is a topless pool, but is actually “top-optional.”
As I birthed myself into the pool area, strobe lights hit my barely A cups from all angles. Through the colored, pulsing lights, I saw a smattering of people lounging on chairs—about a dozen men and two women—both wearing their motherfucking bikini tops!
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?
I turned right around, soaked in embarrassment. I flew back into the locker room and bungled my bikini top back on with haste. Oh fuck this. Fuck this a million ways.
It’s a delicate task to mix outrageous humor with immensely relevant motherhood topics, but Ferner has created just the adventure for it. As the story continues and April begins to feel comfortable being more autonomous, her indisputable voice only gets stronger. In the first few chapters of the book, April could not have imagined herself on an all night drive to Las Vegas to catch a cheating husband. But, by the end of the novel, April gives herself permission to elbow her way through life a little harder, and she seems better off for it.
In Adult Conversation, Ferner has created a refuge. It is a refuge that involves taking private phone calls in the back of a closet. A refuge where an occasional babysitter is needed. A refuge where nightly sex with one’s husband is not realistic. But in this refuge, by the end of the novel, April is better able to admit imperfection without shame. Ferner guides the reader carefully through April’s understanding of what she needs as a mother, instead of what everyone else needs from her. Not every mother who reads this book is going to have an absolute riot of a time like April did in Las Vegas, and by no means is Ferner telling mothers that a spontaneous trip is what they need to be more autonomous. Instead, Adult Conversation offers an up-close encounter with a woman balancing the realistic pushes and pulls of modern motherhood, who gets a chance to take her readers on an entertaining and hilarious adventure.
For more information on Brandy Ferner, click here.