The Other Mother, a multigenerational, multi-perspective novel, is as poignant and nuanced as its structure is unique and transpicuous. It is a moving family drama organized into seven books with seven chapters each that provide accounts for every character involved. This mix of perspectives shatters the heteronormative, nuclear family, while emphasizing the complexities and vulnerabilities of motherhood.
The book begins with “The Son”—Jenry Castillo: a Cuban-Black piano prodigy and freshman at Brown University on an essential quest for his biological father, Jasper Patterson. The premise is not uncommon, but the story takes an unexpected turn when it introduces the other mother, the catalyst of the story. Upon meeting his grandfather, Winston Patterson, a tenured history professor at Brown, Jenry learns that Jasper’s sister, Juliet, also raised him as a young child. Juliet was romantically involved with his mother, Marisa, until she left when he was only two.
Confused and angry at his mother for having kept this secret, Jenry grapples with having two mothers. The books that follow provide retrospective accounts of what transpired between Marisa and Juliet. Marisa, Jenry’s biological mother and the one who primarily raised him, delivers a relatable perspective on motherhood:
Marisa couldn’t hear the details of her confession: how she had fallen in love with her friend years ago; how she feared her parents’ rejection so she lied about who she was; how she wanted to have a baby because of Juliet, not in spite of her; how the feeling of Jenry swimming around in her belly was the first time she didn’t feel hollow inside; how pushing him out was the scariest pleasure she’d ever experienced; how she didn’t know that a mother could fall in love with her own child, and in doing so, could begin to love herself in ways she hadn’t previously imagined.
Rachel M. Harper has created characters with justifiable flaws. The story is laced with an overarching theme of doing what is right to protect someone, even if that protection is self-preservation. Harper delicately illustrates the variations of doing right by yourself and others out of love, which ends up hurting those involved. For Juliet, this meant choosing to leave her partner because she can’t love her the way she wants. For Marisa, it entailed keeping her child away from their other parent because she and her son were a package deal. And for both of them, it meant never telling their son that his biological father isn’t who he thinks. So many differing circumstances, so much at stake, so much risk in telling the truth.
The narrative presents all sides—every truth and fabrication—showing imperfect characters and messy relationships. We love in different ways. What can feel like betrayal, Harper reveals, can be quite the opposite, as told through Winston’s perspective: “Relationships are complicated. People. Families. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. When you’re a child, you can’t see how much work it involves, just keeping everyone connected.”
Through compelling and complex character dynamics, Harper integrates larger themes of race, gender, sexuality, and cultural and generational differences. Most distinctly, she reckons with motherhood and the unconditional type of love that accompanies it along with fears and insecurities. From Juliet’s perspective, we see the struggle of not being able to view oneself as equal when another parent carried the child. From Marisa’s perspective, readers witness the feeling of inferiority when your child gravitates towards their other parent because of a shared talent and passion. Both come to largely understand that motherhood is more than being the conduit through which a child comes into the world, having the breasts the child feeds upon through their infancy, or even being the one who raises them until adulthood. Motherhood is both a shared and unique experience. There is more than one way to be a mother, and each mother’s experience ought to be recognized and honored, whether they are a birth mom, a stepmom, an adoptive mom or the other mom. In so many ways, the novel highlights one statement: “Love is what makes someone powerful, not anger, not fear.” The same can be said for motherhood: love is what makes a mother.
Harper’s language—raw and visceral—pertaining to Juliet is sharpest. She uses musical terms to define Juliet’s feelings and convey her fears and desires about Jenry—the intensity, the real stakes now that he’s back in her life, and how she’s desperate to not make the same mistakes again. Now that she has a new partner with whom she’s expecting a child, Juliet reconciles her past to her present, and uses the lessons she’s learned to realize the true meaning of motherhood:
What is a mother who won’t sacrifice for her child? This is what motherhood is all about, she will come to understand later, doing what’s best for your child regardless of the pain. Marisa understood that all those years ago, when Juliet was only focused on her art, foolishly thinking that the rest would wait for her: family, love, partnership. Today, Juliet has learned to put those things first; that is what has kept her sober, kept her married and faithful, committed to Noelle and their future family.
At the heart of this story are choice, belief, and freedom. What we choose directly or indirectly affects others, especially when that choice is about them. But what we believe has the power to eradicate whatever choice we made that resulted in something damaged or undesired. When Juliet finally believes that she is Jenry’s mother, she is freed from the guilt of her past and the 18 years she lost. When Marisa sees Jenry play at the school’s winter concert, she believes that he has always been connected to Juliet, despite their long separation and the fact that they don’t actually share blood. It’s what Jenry believes that really matters. His belief that he is biologically connected to Juliet and Winston is what allows him to thrive; it’s what allows him to accept his life now. Winston’s belief that Jenry is his actual grandson helps lessen the grief of losing Jasper, as he feels there is still a part of his son alive in Jenry.
This is encapsulated in a bold statement made about Juliet towards the end of the novel: “This whole thing is about belief—not fact, not proof—and in that way it puts her and her father on the same side. She believes Jenry is her son, and her father believes he is Jasper’s son—it doesn’t matter that neither is correct in any technical issue. The belief is what matters, and what they do with it—the life they live as a result of it.”
Harper’s novel will engage fans of generational sagas and family dramas where long-buried family histories and secrets are unearthed, and past choices affect the present and future of others in a snowball effect. The Other Mother is a respectful, generous nod to same-gender couples, single parents, and adoptive parents. Family is not the people you simply inherit but the people you choose.
The novel excels at revealing motherhood—and parenting—truly: falling in love with a person you’ve helped to create, and, in doing so, loving yourself in ways you couldn’t imagine, knowing you will sacrifice absolutely everything for them.