This One Mother: Musings on Motherhood in Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer

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Released late last May, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer has since been garnering a ton of critical acclaim, mainly due to its brilliant depiction of female adolescence. Though a lot of the discussion surrounding this book has centered on its two eagle-eyed pre-teen heroines Rose and Windy, the Tamakis’ languid summer narrative also presents us with (as other members of the WWAC community have noted) another equally intriguing character, Rose’s mother Alice. It made me really happy that a book that does such a wonderful job of exploring girlhood also offers such a compassionate study in motherhood. The Tamakis’ portrayal of Alice, in particular, really invites us to consider many of the complicated societal expectations placed on mothers, often at the expense of their selfhood. So, in celebration of Mother’s day, I thought I’d give Alice and the other mothers in this story their due.

That Alice is framed through her daughter’s eyes is one of the first things that struck me while I was reading this book.

This One Summer

Such a framing (and this particular ‘eye-opening’ memory of Rose’s) evokes the exact type of feelings that arise when a girl realizes that her mother, often the first superheroine that she will encounter in life, is actually fallible. This specific memory occurs in the midst of the book’s present-day story, which revolves around Rose’s now strained relationship with her mother. The water/womb imagery is also pretty clear here, and carries throughout the narrative, as Alice now refuses to go near the water due to a traumatic incident that is deeply tied to her identity as a mother. Throughout the story, Alice is still trying to cope with the lingering effects of this mysterious event, which, according to Rose, has something to do with infertility. Rose is convinced that her parents are still trying to have a second child, and has internalized this to mean that she is not a good enough daughter (especially after Windy’s comments that her own mother wanted only her because she is perfect.)  The resulting mother-daughter tension between Alice and Rose is beautifully rendered, the story’s atmosphere tinged with both Rose’s resentment and Alice’s obvious sadness.

As we can see, Jillian Tamaki skillfully deploys various scenes with Alice alone in the dark house in order to communicate her isolation and depression to us. Alice is obviously unwell, but never portrayed as monstrous or selfish, though Rose tries quite hard to have us believe the latter.

This One Summer

The nebulous, anxiety-fueled stress that Alice feels throughout this story is both bound up with motherhood and  written on the body in a manner which, interestingly, is usually associated with the physical toll felt by brand-new moms; Alice is tired, her frame gaunt and frequently slumped over, and her brow irritably furrowed. In contrast, we have Windy’s New Age-y mother Evelyn, whose warm, expressive face features deep laugh lines.

Of note here is also the fact that Evelyn is both an adoptive mother (which Windy confirms outright) and possibly also a divorcee or single mother (Windy refers to her father as “Jim,” hinting that she might have a step-dad or blended family.) Evelyn is also depicted as having a vastly different parenting style than that of Alice. Like her mother, Windy is quite carefree, almost always drawn in a whirlwind of motion that showcases her unruly hair. Unlike Evelyn, Alice is often concerned with her daughter’s appearance; in fact the first glimpse of Alice that we receive are of her watchful eyes in the rear-view mirror as she tells Rose to stop chewing her thumb, and later panels showing us Alice meticulously scooping Rose’s hair into a ponytail or braids.

Though it would be easy to criticize Alice for upholding patriarchal beauty standards regarding Rose’s hair and dress, we might instead consider the anxieties that mothers may feel about being judged for having an unkempt child. Likely aware of these unfair expectations, Alice is clearly doing the best she can to mother Rose while also battling her own feelings of inadequacy.

Furthermore, both Alice and Evelyn are able to rally when it counts, backing each other up to teach their daughters how (not) to talk about other women, a lesson that is repeated between the girls later on in the story.

This One Summer

Evelyn also reaches out to Rose when she realizes that the girl is having a hard time communicating with her own mother. In doing so, it is obvious that she has not only Rose’s best interest in mind, but Alice’s as well.

Since motherhood can often be isolating, the type of allyship depicted between Evelyn and Alice was particularly excellent given the differences in each woman’s family situation and parenting style.

Also of note is Windy’s visiting grandmother. Though she is obviously meant mostly as comic relief for both the girls and the reader, she obviously cares for her granddaughter, and also provides some support for Evelyn (even more important if, as I’ve speculated, Evelyn might be a single mother.) I’d like to think that the girls’ time with Windy’s grandmother might also provide the chance for Evelyn and Alice to get together for a chat and some wine.

Like Windy, Rose also receives a supplementary mother, in the form of Jodie, Alice’s younger sister who comes to visit the family in Awago with her partner Daniel. Serving as a foil for Alice, we definitely get the feeling that Jodie is perhaps a reflection of Alice’s more glamorous, past self, or that the two women might have once looked very much alike.

This One Summer

That the Tamakis took care to include an aunt for Rose is also culturally important, as I have talked at length with friends about the formative roles that our own aunts have played in relationship to our identities as women, often acting as surrogate or supplementary mother-figures. Though Windy also mentions having a cool lesbian aunt, Rose’s aunt Jodie in particular, seems to be a “Professional Aunt, No Kids”– (full disclosure: I was lucky enough to grow up with two of these around, and am also presently of this camp, so I was excited to see This One Summer acknowledge some of the different ways in which female relatives and friends could assist with and partake in aspects of mothering if they so choose.)

That Rose idolizes her aunt so much could also be due to the fact that Rose, a keen observer, is perhaps seeing past shades of Alice in Jodie as well. Jodie seems to serve as a bridge between Rose and Alice, or more specifically, as a mediator in their strained relationship; Jodie is both a surrogate for Rose and a confidante for Alice, and it is mostly through Jodie that we find out more about Alice’s depression.

This One Summer

Mariko Tamaki’s stilted dialogue between Alice and Jodie makes it clear that Alice is as frustrated with herself as Rose is with her, as she remarks to Jodie: “I wish I was a little kid so I could just scream and be mad,” fully aware that full-grown women (and especially mothers) are expected to be calm and polite, and also perhaps that she herself is expected to deal with her trauma alone, as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. It is precisely Alice’s self-awareness of the ways in which she has been affected by her trauma that makes her inability to connect with Rose so heartbreaking. Obviously feeling judged and resented by her daughter, Alice’s traumatized state is likely made worse by the societally ingrained notion that mothers are supposed to anticipate their child’s needs, and are consequently the ones responsible for both their child’s happiness and all of her problems. Alice’s emotional failure to mother has caused a deep rupture in her sense of self, and she is struggling to maintain her personhood.  Interestingly, Alice’s past engagement with issues of female personhood is also quite literally written on her body; Jillian Tamaki cleverly depicts Alice helplessly slumped over the dinner table clad in a well-worn Bikini Kill t-shirt, a telltale sign of Alice’s own feminist explorations, which, at the time, were quite radical.

It is fitting, then, that Alice’s ability both to re-assert herself and reconnect with her daughter is bound up with both mothering and pregnancy. Towards the end of the book, there is a nasty confrontation between Duncan and Jenny, a teenage couple that Rose and Windy have been fixating on. Both Rose’s crush on Duncan and Jenny’s possible pregnancy provide most of the occasions through which we experience Rose and Windy’s pre-teen adolescence. After the confrontation with Duncan leaves Jenny heading drunkenly for a moonlight swim, Rose’s ever-watchful eyes glimpse the teen floating face down in the lake. She screams for Alice, who, without hesitation, dives into the water to rescue Jenny.

This One Summer

Alice’s return to the water proves to be the catharsis she needs; in a Freudian turn of events, it is only after she revisits the site of her previous trauma that she is able to name it directly. Alice’s emotional failure to mother Rose becomes even more tragic as we find out its cause; after trying desperately to conceive in the face of infertility, she had miscarried the baby last year while swimming in the same lake.

This sliver of backstory is also the only firsthand account of Alice’s that we receive, told to Evelyn after the girls are assumed to be asleep. This fantastic scene did indeed make me wish that more of the story had been told from Alice’s point of view; the Tamakis once again depict an allyship between the two mothers as Evelyn convinces Alice to tell Rose about the miscarriage. The Tamakis’ choice to highlight Alice as the literal hero of this book is also significant here, perhaps acknowledging, to some degree, the many thankless and unrecognized minutiae of motherhood, and their connection to feelings of helplessness or self-doubt.

It is also quite satisfying to finally see Alice come to terms with such a quiet, very personal loss, her ability to tell Evelyn about the miscarriage serving as a way out of her isolation and hopefully, also as a way through her depression.

This One Summer

As Alice realizes, mothers, in all of their different forms, are a community, and ideally should not be afraid to reach out to each other for mutual support. As This One Summer has clearly shown us, motherhood is also complicated, the Tamakis’ nuanced portrayal of Alice in particular revealing the delicate balancing act between motherhood and personhood, while also serving as a lovely reminder for all mothers to be as kind and patient with themselves and each other as they are with their children.

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  1. This was a great book. Read anything by First Second; I cannot get over how much joy in reading I’ve had from them.