“Some people are meant to be mothers, and some people are meant to be free,” writes Missy Alamo in the early pages of The Spectacular, a new book by Zoe Whittall (The Best Kind of People).
It’s 1997 and Missy is a 22-year old indie rock star who, prior to embarking on a tour with her band, is searching for a doctor who will perform a tubal litigation. She wants to have all the sex she wants on tour without the threat of an unexpected pregnancy. (No doctor will perform the surgery, citing Missy’s young age and the possibility that she’ll change her mind.)
Missy’s distaste for the idea of childbearing is closely related to the strained relationship with her mother, Carola. Interviewed by a music publication about her band’s hit single “Not Looking for You Anymore,” Missy notes that the song is “about her mother, who abandoned the family.” We learn that when Missy was a child, Carola left her daughter, her husband and the commune they lived on to run away to a yoga center in New Hampshire.
Carola, the book’s second narrator, is enmeshed in a sex scandal involving the yoga center’s guru when she comes across the interview and is forced to confront the mistakes she’s made as a mother, which Missy describes as such: “My mother’s only terrible disease was maternal indifference, and that was something I knew I’d inherited.”
The third narrator, after Missy and Carola, is Ruth, Carola’s octogenarian mother-in-law and Missy’s grandmother. Living outside of Montreal, Ruth, who emigrated from Turkey in the ‘50s, is consumed by secrets from her past, the not-so-distant idea of death and the desire to reunite Missy and Carola before her time on earth is up.
It’s through the stories of these three drastically different women that Whittall explores generational trauma and oscillating gender roles. Despite their different personalities and circumstances, these characters are unapologetically themselves: strong women unwilling to cave into society’s expectations of them. It’s also worth praising Whittall’s fearlessness in addressing the very real (but infrequently talked about) idea that not every person with a uterus is cut out to be a mother—and there’s no shame in admitting, or acting upon, that fact.
An occasionally melancholy, often darkly comedic story from a sharply talented writer, The Spectacular is a vibrant homage to living life on your own terms.