“What do you do when you’re little and know you can’t be like your mother?” asks the author of this warm, funny, sharp-eyed new memoir. Good question, if your mother is gorgeous in a way that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for you; if she’s also “blinkered by convention” and so prone to sudden mommy-dearest moments that your private nickname for her is THOON (for The Hand Out of Nowhere). What will you do for a role model? Luckily, at age 10, Volk happens on designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1954 autobiography, Shocking Life, and discovers her own virtual Auntie Mame, or Anti-Mom. Volk’s beautiful mother is all about form, appearances, doing things right. “She radiates high-polished meticulosity.” The unbeautiful Schiap turns rules on their head. She falls in with the Surrealists, designs a necklace of bugs, a pair of gloves with fingernails, a hat like an inverted shoe. She makes the cover of Time. “Schiap planted the idea that imagination trumped beauty, that being different might be a virtue,” Volk says. And that there is, after all, more than one way to be a woman. —Amanda Lovell
From the moment we meet them—stuck in traffic—Jesse and Ramon are filled with anxiety and losing faith in each other’s love. Their adoption odyssey is mapped with aching clarity in Gilmore’s superb new novel. The narrator, Jesse, a cancer survivor, is droll, acerbic and prone to magical thinking. After rounds of IVF, she and Ramon have decided on domestic open adoption. This is fraught with questions. Does it matter if the birth mother has used drugs? And what about race or special needs? The longing for a baby keeps colliding with other desires, not to mention the scams and dashed hopes that become the couple’s new reality. As Jesse puts it, “The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness. The opposite of happiness is waiting. The opposite of happiness is panic, that the future held no one but Ramon and me.” Their journey to parenthood is harrowing but told with such honest intensity that it’s soul enlarging, too. —Elaina Richardson
I expected this to be a hilarious mommy memoir. The good news is that it’s so much more: a deep, candid, insightful and emotional look at love, family, independence and commitment. Sweeney has made a career of being the victim of large-scale cosmic jokes; her first book, God Said, Ha!, was about nursing her brother through terminal cancer only to be diagnosed with cancer herself. This one is the story of how her resulting hysterectomy sparked a burning desire to have a child. Or rather, it’s as much of the story as Sweeney can write in the month she gets to herself. What the memoir lacks in narrative drive, it makes up for in heart: Reading it is like catching up through a long, soul-baring night with your funniest old friend. You may know the end of the story— she adopts the kid, marries the guy and lives happily if ambivalently ever after—but you’re still absorbed in every detail of how she gets there. —Pamela Redmond Satran
"Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders"
by Jennifer Finney Boylan; Crown
Parents will recognize the basics here: The days go on forever; the years fly by; the heart is gripped by an aching, terrified love. The fact that Boylan changes her gender along the way—father of babies becomes mother of teenagers—does not make this memoir a cabinet of curiosities. It’s a family love story, bighearted and fearlessly funny. “To accept the wondrous scope of gender,” Boylan writes, “is to affirm the vast potential of life, in all its messy, unfathomable beauty.” And her story, interspersed with celebrity interviews on parenting, is messy and beautiful indeed. In the end, it matters less who has a vagina than that, as Boylan’s mother puts it, “love will prevail.” —Catherine Newman
"Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs"
by Pearl Cleage; Atria
Pearl Cleage’s daughter, Deignan, didn’t bother reading her mother’s personal diaries. “Mom, I know what happened,” she said. “I was there, remember?” Cleage is startled by Deignan’s comment because, while Deignan was physically present for her mother’s “mad flight toward financial independence, sexual liberation, creative fulfillment and free womanhood,” she wasn’t privy to the vitally important conversations that took place only in the pages of her mother’s diary—the moments when she’s fervently soul searching, when her heart is breaking, when she’s wondering if maybe, possibly, this could be love. And so, for all of the young women who weren’t there (and especially for the one who claims she was), Cleage offers raw and revealing entries that tell the complete story of her most formative years. —Laynie Rose
Timid and secretive as a young Trinidadian girl, Marcia Garcia grows into a mother fiercely protective of her young—and at times fatherless—brood. Love dominates every aspect of this debut novel, from Maria’s devotion to her children to her lingering affection for a man struggling to prove his worth. But Francis-Sharma’s greatest strength is the way she brings to life her family’s native Trinidad, an island “rich with calypso and carnival” where cultural tradition is still deeply revered. —Laynie Rose