The artful telling of a story leaves a reader lying awake at night wondering about a fictional character’s trajectory. These tales often do two things well at once—convey a narrative arc that resonates and also offer a reader who is a writer a masterclass on how to properly craft a short story. Michelle Ross’s second fiction collection is successful in creating fourteen stories which stay with the reader long after the final story. In her short stories in Shapeshifting, Ross provides an unflinching and honest portrayal of motherhood. Her ability to infuse candor into her characters offers readers a chance to relate to flawed individuals and, more importantly, to acknowledge that motherhood is a full-time everything with poignant and painful moments.
The underbelly of motherhood in Shapeshifting isn’t glamorous or some social media version of an influencer’s take on mothering, but a real account of complicated mothers—mothers who are sleep-deprived; mothers who have flawed relationships with their children; mothers who are often carrying the brunt of the responsibility despite being married; and mothers, who ultimately love their kids, but struggle with how to parent properly. The mothers are constantly questioning themselves in these stories with a lens zoomed into their shortcomings, but also with their children’s best interest in mind. In the opening story, “After Pangea,” the narrative fixates on a mother’s quest to secure a spot for her kindergartner in a school. Her strategy involves camping out with her four-year-old and infant for several days in row to make certain she doesn’t lose her early spot to enroll. She questions her own motivation:
Why have we assembled together to camp out all week in vehicles to get our kids into a school that is, frankly, not all that exceptional? Would our children’s lives be remarkably improved by their going to this particular school? By camping out, I supposed we hoped to give our children an advantage over children whose parents couldn’t take the time off work or wouldn’t.
The same story also addresses the competitiveness that happens between mothers and fathers. The narrator’s husband is a blogger who posts about parenting and gets credit from his “fans,” while his wife, the mother, is doing all the behind-the-scenes work to care for the children and the household.
Many of the stories in the collection focus on complicated issues of mother-child relationships. In “Winkelsucher” a photographer-mother mulls over the boundaries between her son’s privacy and her need to photograph him. The narrator offers a rhetorical inquiry, “Why shouldn’t they make their children the subjects of their art?” Once a woman becomes a mother there is uncertain terrain. What is the mother doing right? What is the mother doing wrong? Or are these questions even fair? The mother in “Winkelsucher” confesses, “What she wanted to say was that all children are experiments—messy, uncontrolled, long-term experiments. Every day, there’s more to observe and discover. Is it any wonder parents feel compelled, even entitled, to document?” This documentation is an ode to the child’s becoming with the understanding that photographs captured by the mother-narrator contains an inherent bias.
The various arcs of several stories focus on flawed relationships between a mother and child. The relationship is never linear. This trajectory is captured in Ross’s story, “Lifecycle of an Ungrateful Daughter,” where the mother walks the reader through a timeline on how she believes her daughter perceives her mothering at different ages. In the beginning at age two weeks, the mother takes license with her recognition of “power.”
Her skin was velvet ice cream. You could have left her out under the sun until she melted if you’d wanted. You were wickedly amused by the pleasure it gave you to have so much power over her, weren’t you? That her survival depends on you? Power, you came to understand, is one of the joys of motherhood.
Ross isn’t afraid to enter into darker and vulnerable thoughts of motherhood. In this narrative, the mother confesses that she doesn’t feel a particular kinship to her oldest daughter. “What you could say for certain was that your daughter was not the ideal companion you’d hoped for, far from it. She didn’t ask why, why, why like your other two kids—which could be annoying for sure, but at least they looked to you for answers.” This relationship remains fractured throughout, with the daughter eventually becoming a writer, and exacting her personal revenge on her mother by sharing her first published story. And the subject? Her mother. Here the narrator-mother confronts a deep and uncomfortable truth when she reads her daughter’s piece:
The story was about you, sure enough. Most of what happened in the story wasn’t really true. It didn’t happen at all or it didn’t happen exactly the way your daughter wrote it. And yet, you recognized through her humiliating familiarity that the mother in the story wasn’t just what your daughter thought of you, but she was you —a distorted image, manipulated, but still you. It was as though your daughter had peeled you apart. The mother character in the story was a collage of your sharp edges and waxy panes.
Becoming a mother shifts a woman’s identity, and that’s why Ross’s choice of title for the collection, Shapeshifting, is apt and on point. A mother’s identity is never the same after having children. Ask the sleep-deprived mother in the story “Three-Week Checkup” who describes her state: “The only serious hindrance was her exhaustion. She felt undone by her exhaustion, as though her body were a disassembled pile of pieces that a first-year med student had been tasked with putting back together again.” Motherhood becomes the ultimate shifter of a woman’s existence—physical and emotional shapes are never the same.
In the title story, Ross further defines “shapeshifting” through the narrator-mother who just learned she is pregnant. “I’d inherit the shapeshifting gene. Shapeshifting could be useful. . . My belly is hard as a rock. I picture a huge geode, the fetus a milky quartz crystal.”
These poetic lines by Ross enhance the storytelling and her crisp dialogue between characters lets the reader sink into her language. Even in the most uncomfortable moments where dark issues are being discussed, like infertility, male chauvinism, alcoholism, rape and dystopian themes, the lyricism, metaphors and language lull the reader in wanting to move forward despite potential triggers. Ross wants her readers to think and isn’t interested in presenting a glossy panoramic view of motherhood. She’s invested in presenting backstory and stripping our assumptions of generic definitions of mothering. This collection will keep me up at night, in a good way, helping me confront my triumphs and shortcomings of my mothering. That is the power of Shapeshifting and Ross’s prose—creating fiction that spills into our nonfiction lives.