Mother’s Day quickly approaches, and sons and daughters who wish to stay in their mom’s good graces should think twice before giving Paul Theroux’s new novel as a gift.

Or maybe not. There must be plenty of mothers with sufficiently cultivated senses of humor to be able to appreciate the dark satire of “Mother Land,” the fictional chronicle of one family’s struggles with the most manipulative of matriarchs.

Theroux’s new novel follows the adult members of the large and unruly Justus clan of Cape Cod, in the aftermath of Father’s hospitalization and eventual death. (“We think it’s best that we take him off his ventilator,” Mother announces. “He’s so uncomfortable.”) Although he was viewed as henpecked at home and unsuccessful in his career as a shoe salesman, Father’s demise consolidates Mother’s power in the family and gives her a new lease on life.

A former teacher seen by her neighbors as a pillar of the community, famous for her work ethic, unimpeachable piety and uncomplaining manner, Mother presents an entirely different personality at home, undermining the confidences of her middle-aged children at every available turn.

Eldest son Fred is a lawyer, a respected counselor and giver of wanted advice. The second oldest is Floyd, a caustic poet and university professor, whom Mother “despised and feared.” Next up is JP, the book’s narrator of questionable reliability, a writer who finances his novels through his travel journalism, brooding about his failed marriages and declining sales. The other male siblings include Hubby, a trauma nurse who is also handy around the house, and Gilbert, Mother’s favorite living child, a diplomat rarely in the United States, usually posted to some insanely remote political hotspot.


The female Justuses include Franny and Rose, school teachers who go out of their ways to keep Mother happy with presents of food and trinkets. Finally, there is Angela, who died at birth and therefore never did anything to disappoint her Mother, who claims to maintain a spiritual connection with the long-dead child.


As he recounts his version of his family story, JP acknowledges the unlikelihood of seven siblings existing in any kind of harmony. He writes, “Some of our desperation must have arisen from the fact that we knew our family was too big to survive, too clumsy to flourish, monstrous to behold, the grotesque phenomenon of another century, a furious and isolated tribe at war with itself, ruled over by an unpindownable presence – chairperson of the board, fickle queen, empress of Mother Land.”

The siblings often snipe openly at each other, but behind-the-back mockery is the currency that runs the Justus household. No embarrassing mishap or unintended slight is ever forgotten or forgiven. They are still talking about the trouble Hubby had with bedwetting as a child.

From a throne-like chair in her living room, Mother delights in collecting news and disseminating it wherever it will cause the most inconvenience and emotional damage. JP experiences this tactic firsthand when he confides in his mother about the commitment ring he intends to give his quasi-fiancée. The confidence is broken immediately. Not only do his siblings take umbrage at his secretiveness, but his girlfriend abruptly dumps him.

Mother’s children spend decades aggrieved at her behavior, but none is able to emerge victorious in the colossal battle of wills. When money and real estate become part of the stakes, tempers flare even higher. But even as the health of her offspring declines, Mother hangs in there, shrinking in size while undiminished in influence.

JP is at least able to acknowledge that he doesn’t fully understand his surviving parent. He writes, “I, who had prided myself on my clear sightedness, was confused. It was never completely clear to me if Mother was manipulating those of us she was giving money to, or were these people manipulating her? I looked for a villain. But it was Mother’s genius that she could seem both tyrant and victim, oppressor and oppressed.”

Theroux is a native of Medford, Massachusetts, a onetime student at the University of Maine and a longtime resident of Cape Cod and Hawaii. He is himself one of seven children, among them two other writers, Alexander (“Darconville’s Cat”) and Peter (“Sandstorms”).


Perhaps best known as the author of “The Mosquito Coast,” “The Old Patagonia Express” and “Saint Jack,” Paul Theroux has produced work in a wide variety of genres and styles, from coming-of-age tales to serial killer thrillers, apocalyptic science fiction to travelogues. He is also noted for employing elements of autobiography in his novels and stories.

Page by page, his “Mother Land” is engrossing and amusing, a sharp-eyed domestic comedy of greed, resentment and the ties that strangle. The trouble is, there are an awful lot of pages.

The Justus kids are clearly defined characters, each with recognizable tics and traits, but they don’t change much over time. Episodes of bad behavior are repeated again and again. That’s part of the joke, of course, but some readers may want the plot to develop a bit less repetitively.

Luckily, JP proves to be capable of change. In the book’s final chapters, once Mother is over 100 years old, he finds a way to come to terms with her and what they have meant to each other. Without stooping to sentimentality, the resolution of “Mother Land” is both moving and apt, the comedy and the tragedy deployed in equal measure.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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