A review of The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

Reviewed by Julz Savard

The Other Mother
by Rachel M. Harper
May 3, 2022, Hardcover, 432 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1640095045

The Other Mother– a multigenerational, multi-perspective narrative–is as poignant and nuanced as its structure is unique and transpicuous. A moving family drama organized into seven books with seven chapters each, the mix of points-of-view shatters the heteronormative, nuclear family, 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. A premise not uncommon, but one that quickly turns to the other mother, title encapsulated in the novel’s driving force. Upon meeting his grandfather, Winston Patterson, a tenured History professor at Brown, Jenry learns that Jasper’s sister, Juliet, raised him as a young child with his mother, Marisa, her ex-partner. 

Confused and angry at his mother for having kept this secret, Jasper grapples with having two mothers. The following books provide retrospective accounts of what transpired between Marisa and Juliet; ultimately Juliet didn’t feel passionate about Marisa and chose to focus on her career as a touring pianist and composer. Feeling rejected, Marisa took Jenry back to Miami where her parents live for the next eighteen years, cutting Juliet off entirely. Juliet looks desperately for them, but her search peters out as her career takes off. In each account, characters are interwoven and connected. 

In Book 3: The Father, Jasper battles with AIDS but dies in a lake accident at the family cabin. Juliet falls into alcoholism and leaves Marisa. Winston, The Grandfather, hid from Juliet that he kept tabs on Jenry’s childhood through mementos and letters, as well as his financial support to Victor, The Other Grandfather, Marisa’s father, who hides his regular correspondence with Winston about Jenry from Marisa. With Winston’s support and presence (albeit from a distance), Jenry inevitably comes to Providence to study at the same university both his mothers did and to meet his “other family.” Hence all the lies, secrets, and betrayals unravel. 

Harper achieves characterization equally flawed and just. The story is laced with an overarching theme of doing what is “right” to protect someone, but later learning that the protection was merely self-preservation, deferring and avoiding the potential pain of losing that someone again. Harper delicately illustrates the variations of doing right by yourself and others out of “love” that sadly ends up hurting those involved. Choosing to leave your partner because you can’t love her the way she wants; keeping your child away from their other parent because you’re a package deal; hiding what you know from your daughter so she can beat her addiction and succeed at her talent; secretly corresponding with the man who can give your grandson a better future; never telling your son that his biological father isn’t whom he thinks. So many circumstances, so much at stake, so much risk in telling the truth, and yet when the truth comes, it sets everyone free. 

The narrative presents all sides–every truth and fabrication–creating imperfect characters and messy relationships. We love in different ways. What can feel like betrayal, Harper reveals: 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 on race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Successful men in their fields–from Winston’s and Victor’s perspectives–struggle being Black in America, and with the disillusionment of emigration, respectively. They try to reconcile their children to themselves, questioning lifestyles that severely defy theirs, or refusing to understand, either due to a generational gap or a cultural norm being breached. From Jasper’s, Juliet’s, and Marisa’s points-of-view, the struggles of being gay, the physical implications in Jasper’s situation, the inability to fully see oneself as an equal parent, the estrangement and rejection from family in which the riff between daughter and mother feels eternal. 

Grief underlines the narrative collectively. Whether because of separation, the death of a loved one, or an unfulfilled desire, grief allows the reader to sympathize greatly and deeply. Juliet’s sorrows and struggles are constant, causing her to give up her one true love: music. Her character arc is the most prevalent and responsive in that she learns to put family, love, and partnership first; it keeps her sober, married and faithful to her present partner, Noelle, and their future family with their adopted son, Jonah. Harper lyrically describes grief, loss, longing, regret, and guilt in an array of similes and metaphors, for example, “The guilt feels like a wool scarf knotted around his neck, one he will wear for the rest of his life.” 

The descriptive language–raw and visceral–in the sections that pertain to Juliet are the sharpest. Harper uses musical terms to define Juliet’s feelings and mental states. She conveys Juliet’s 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. 

Juliet’s perspective drives the narrative, while other sections, although rich and beautifully detailed, distract from the main plot. Jasper’s account seemed a stand-alone section, pertaining less to the arc than defining his relationships. Yet the structure of the book would’ve been sacrificed (its seven-seven order) without the last three books: Winston’s, Victor’s, and The Other Son – Jonah’s. The history in these sections confused the facts around Jenry’s birth. They also made the rest of the story predictable. If much of the story had been told in the present, it would have allowed for more interesting conflicts between characters. By the time we get back to the present from historical sections, we have already forgotten what knowledge certain characters possess and their feelings towards certain events. 

The ending shifted tonally and didn’t involve or give credit to Marisa, suffering from cancer––or Victor, who played a big role in Jenry’s upbringing. It seemed to alienate them, closing Marisa’s arc with a scene of her discouraging Jenry from continuing at Brown since his first semester was difficult, and then resigning that her son will inevitably grow closer to Juliet because of their shared talent, and possibly her family. We only get the conclusion that Jenry still has a good relationship with his mother and her parents, Victor and Ines, because he is flying to Miami on Christmas Day in the last chapter. 

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 eighteen years she lost. When Marisa sees Jenry play prolifically at the school’s Winter Contest, she believes that he has always been connected to Juliet, despite their long separation and that they don’t actually share blood. Even when the two mothers choose not to tell Jenry that Jasper is not his real father, it is a choice they once again make to protect him—but it’s Jenry’s belief that he is biologically connected to Juliet and Winston that allows him to thrive and 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 him alive in Jenry. 

This whole thing is about belief,” Harper writes. “—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 where past choices explicitly affect the present and future of others in a snowball effect. The novel excels at revealing motherhood—or 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. 

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. 

About the reviewer: Julz Savard is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from Ateneo de Manila University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She works for a nonprofit as a Communications Manager while completing her first Young Adult novel. She has been published in Lunch Ticket, Chalk Magazine, and Meg Magazine.