Via NY Post: If there is a truth universally held in fiction and by society at large, it’s that grown women aren’t supposed to run away from home. If they do, they risk losing everything — their families, if they have them. Their social standing. Sometimes even their lives.
But in the new novel “Leave Me,” by Gayle Forman, that’s exactly what the protagonist does, albeit not permanently. It’s more of a time-out.
Maribeth Klein is a busy working mom who’s so busy, so put-upon, she doesn’t even realize she’s had a heart attack — on the same night she’s supposed to host a potluck dinner, no less.
“At this very moment twelve 4-year-olds were rampaging around her apartment,” she thinks, after receiving the news about the heart attack. “Someone was going to have to clean up after them, to find the Goldfish crackers in the closet . . . Someone was going to have to make chocolate-chip pancakes for Saturday morning breakfast and to make sure the pantry was stocked with all the ingredients.”
In the days after her heart attack, she isn’t even allowed to recover in peace. Her mother, who is allegedly there to help, keeps hosting guests and leaves Maribeth to clean up coffee cups and dessert plates. Her husband seems incapable of putting together a FreshDirect order without her involvement.
Fed up, she hightails it out of town and goes to Pittsburgh to look for her birth mother. While there, she also meets a man that seems far superior to her husband, holes up in a cozy new apartment where she’s able to cook for herself, make new friends and spend some much-needed time focusing on herself.
It’s an escapist fantasy where the fantasy doesn’t even involve sex, just a few kisses. Time, attention and the ability to focus are the real fantasy.
Call it the Runaway Mom genre.
Today, while only half of all marriages have a chance of lasting 20 years or more, that number goes up dramatically among college-educated women (who tend to buy and write fiction): 8 in 10 of these women will still be married after 20 years, according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Institute.
The 35- to 55-year-old demographic came of age during the high divorce rate of the 1970s and ’80s, after all; they don’t have any illusions about the impact divorce can have on families. Divorce wouldn’t offer an escape from the minutiae — it just creates new logistical problems.
“Being able to drop everything is a luxury most of us don’t have,” says author Forman, who conceived of the book originally as a revenge fantasy after she experienced chest pains during a family vacation.
All she kept thinking about was how the family would manage if she had to have some sort of surgery. The year before, she had had a sinus procedure; the recuperation had not gone well. “When I was writing the book, it was the runup to the ‘50 Shades’ movie and I would tell people, ‘[My book] is the real mommy porn!” says Forman. “People would confess that they had the same fantasy. Every single woman had felt the same way.”
It’s a different take on other female escapist books that we’ve seen in the past, among them the hugely successful book “I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson (2003), which features an overwhelmed working mother who alternately wants to escape to and from the high-powered job that she loves (plus, a handsome colleague in the New York office).
Then there’s “Eat Pray Love” (2006) about a woman trying to find herself post-divorce as she travels from Italy to Bali to India, but it’s no coincidence that protagonist Elizabeth Gilbert is child-free. Can you imagine a mother embarking on this trip? Forget the spiritual journey; the child-care arrangements alone would have stopped her at the airport. Maribeth Klein’s trip to Pittsburgh seems much more manageable. When mothers escape, the location is incidental; it’s the ability to exist outside of domestic minutiae that counts. (“I feel like I could rule an empire,” a frustrated mom friend once e-mailed me, “If I didn’t have to worry about things like new toddler snow boots.”)
The Australian author Liane Moriarty also nails wifely desperation. In “Big Little Lies,” (soon-to-be an HBO series with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon), she explores what can lie behind the façade of a happy marriage, and in “The Husband’s Secret,” she examines just how much compromise and forgiveness might exist to keep a marriage on track.
If things are so gloomy, husbands so incompetent and bumbling, why don’t these women just leave for good? Some do pass a point of no return. For the most part, though, this isn’t “Madame Bovary” or “Anna Karenina,” where women who step outside the bounds of marriage and convention pay for it with their lives (although the 2015 novel/cautionary tale “Hausfrau” by Jill Alexander Essbaum did end with a bored adulterous mother jumping in front of a punctual Swiss train.) “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” were written by men, after all, who wanted to make sure their female characters paid dearly for ignoring the status quo.
In 2016, female readers tend to be more practical, less punitive. Fans of these books enjoy a dalliance or a brief escape — as long as it’s consequence-free. The fantasy of freedom involves being able to return home at will. It isn’t that they want to run away forever — just for long enough to catch their breaths.
“We have the fantasy,” says Forman, but “it doesn’t mean we don’t love our children or our husbands. It’s not just about running away physically, it’s about getting away mentally for a little while.”