Review: Just Like Mother – Anne Heltzel
by Anne Heltzel
Publication Date: May 17, 2022
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
A girl would be such a blessing...
The last time Maeve saw her cousin was the night she escaped the cult they were raised in. For the past two decades, Maeve has worked hard to build a normal life in New York City, where she keeps everything—and everyone—at a safe distance.
When Andrea suddenly reappears, Maeve regains the only true friend she’s ever had. Soon she’s spending more time at Andrea’s remote Catskills estate than in her own cramped apartment. Maeve doesn’t even mind that her cousin’s wealthy work friends clearly disapprove of her single lifestyle. After all, Andrea has made her fortune in the fertility industry—baby fever comes with the territory.
The more Maeve immerses herself in Andrea’s world, the more disconnected she feels from her life back in the city; and the cousins’ increasing attachment triggers memories Maeve has fought hard to bury. But confronting the terrors of her childhood may be the only way for Maeve to transcend the nightmare still to come…
First off? That cover is cursed. That creepy baby head will be living in my nightmares for quite some time. Unfortunately, the book itself didn’t quite live up to that for me.
“My cousin had made a real life for herself. What did I have to offer, after all these years? If my life was a lazy river, Andrea’s was the Autobahn. I couldn’t help but feel that all those years I was looking for her, she’d been busy leaving me behind.”
Maeve and her cousin Andrea grew up in a cult that venerated motherhood – until Maeve’s eighth birthday, when everything came crashing down. Twenty-five years later, Maeve has a job as an editor in NYC – she loves studying people – but feels like she’s not quite living her life. She struggles to open up enough to people to make friends and her romantic relationship barely qualifies as a relationship. Then a genetic test reconnects her with Andrea, now a CEO of a successful life-coaching startup, happily married to a doting husband, and the proud new owner of a rambling mansion in the Catskills. As Andrea and Maeve reconnect, Maeve’s life starts falling down around her again. But the echoes of her childhood are all in her mind, aren’t they?
“Well. Trust takes vulnerability,” Andrea pointed out. “And bravery. You’re a strong person, Maeve. You have the capacity to let people in.”
“I want to trust you,” I said, my throat tightening. “I just—for so long, after everything—” I faltered, mindful of our pact not to speak about the past. “I’ve been alone, for the most part. I’m not used to this.”
This book is an exploration of the darker side of motherhood, of rejecting patriarchy so far that you hit the exact opposite side. For the cult, motherhood is everything, the source of women’s power, and men are good for only one thing. Women who reject motherhood, like Maeve, are seen as misguided at best and traitors at worst. From the moment Maeve and Andrea meet up again, it’s obvious something is not quite right but Maeve is so desperate for connection that she misses the red flags. Maeve’s foster parents encouraged her not to talk about what happened, so she feels like seeing Andrea again will finally give her some sort of closure. But Andrea’s more interested in making a future with Maeve than reliving the past, which Maeve reluctantly accepts. But spending time with Andrea and her friends isn’t exactly comfortable for Maeve. She feels self-conscious and almost like a child, like they’re caring for her. Their financial success, their understanding of how to move through the world, sets her off-balance. What reads as condescension to the reader feels more like love and caring to Maeve. It does require quite a suspension of disbelief – it takes Maeve way too long to realize what’s going on despite the ridiculous number of red flags – but I liked Maeve’s voice and part of it was just watching a train wreck.
“Well, it sort of is just what you do,” Emily replied. “Right? It’s the greatest power we’ve been given as women. It’s what we were made to do.”
“Like I said, skeletons,” Micah broke in, shaking his head. “This is probably why you don’t have a partner.”
As for cons, the plot never quite coalesced for me. There’s a lot going on – the echoes of the Mother cult, the creepy baby dolls (modeled after the child Andrea lost as an infant), the secret passages in Andrea’s house. It’s creepy, but it’s all a bit muddled. Rather than a cohesive narrative, it’s more like a bunch of content warnings thrown at you in hopes that something sticks. That’s also perhaps why the ending fell flat for me as well.
Overall, this is a very chilling premise, but the execution fell a bit flat for me. I’d probably try another book from the author, though, as I found her writing style very readable and engrossing.
Content notes: View Spoiler »child abuse, violence (including murder), discussion of a infant death and infertility, death of side character in a fire, death of a side characters (including a child) in car accidents, anxiety attack (on-page), rape (on-page), forced impregnation, suicide attempt (on-page), claustrophobia, misandry, imprisonment, gaslighting, drugging, PTSD, grief, kink-shaming « Hide Spoiler