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Kristen Iskandrian’s debut novel, MOTHEREST, is certainly getting a lot of buzz. It has landed on numerous “must-read” lists for Summer 2017, and has been longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. In this case, the buzz is totally worth it, as Iskandrian gives readers a deeply intimate novel that manages to provide pathos, humor and insight all at once.

At the center of the book is Agnes, a first-year college student. She’s a bit of a loner, often alone by choice, eagerly retreating to the music practice rooms to play the piano. She likes her roommate and quickly falls head over heels for a boy in her philosophy class, known to readers only by her nickname for him, Tea Rose. But she finds that she can’t always totally relate to them, or, rather, that they can’t always totally relate to her. Agnes’ family has been devastated by the suicide of her older brother, Simon, and by the increasing distance of her mother. After dropping Agnes off at college, in fact, her mother has disappeared altogether, leaving both Agnes at school and her father at home feeling adrift.

"Iskandrian gives readers a deeply intimate novel that manages to provide pathos, humor and insight all at once."

Agnes’ aimlessness and passivity only grow worse when, shortly after her boyfriend dumps her, she realizes that she’s pregnant. She manages to keep her pregnancy a secret (in large part by remaining in denial) through the end of the school year, but when she returns home for the summer, she finds that her pregnancy requires her to renegotiate her relationship with her father, revisit her grief over Simon’s death, and attempt to come to terms with her mother’s continued absence. Without an available mother of her own, how will Agnes navigate her own feelings about becoming a mother?

The book is structured in a series of short chapters told from Agnes’ point of view. At the end of most chapters is a letter (we assume, never sent) from Agnes to her mother --- these letters are Agnes’ opportunity for self-reflection, (imagined) confrontation and introspection. Later in the novel, these epistolary sections are punctuated by Agnes’ letters to her unborn baby as well.

MOTHEREST would be a great book for mothers and their older teen daughters to read and discuss together, since its subject matter will prompt many interesting and essential conversations. It’s also --- despite what you might expect --- a surprisingly shrewd, observant and funny novel about navigating the thorny territory between childhood and adulthood, certainly relevant to many readers even if their experience is less fraught than Agnes’ own.

Iskandrian’s debut is indeed a fine novel to see you through the summer, perhaps especially for college students and young adults looking for a thought-provoking read before hitting the (text)books again come fall.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 4, 2017

by Kristen Iskandrian

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve
  • ISBN-10: 145559444X
  • ISBN-13: 9781455594443