In a society where mixed messages are the norm, it is hard not to feel daily pangs of panic and confusion. We should save our money in case of recession, but we should spend our money to end the recession. We should lose thirty pounds, but we should take advantage of the buy-one-get-one deal at Domino’s. We should stay home with our children, but we should work at least forty hours a week. It is not surprising that over 15 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. Less surprisingly is that the majority of that 15 million is women, who are often pressured to be all things to all people (and look great doing it!). Enter Philadelphia author Marc Schuster and his debut novel The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl.
Both darkly humorous and deeply tragic, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl follows protagonist Audrey Corcoran through a period of intense upheaval. In cliché fashion, Audrey’s husband leaves her for a younger, more beautiful woman, stranding Audrey with two pre-teen daughters, a full-time – yet dubious – job, and a crippling identity crisis. Audrey’s response to the daily grind of editing a food magazine, cleaning house, hosting PTA meetings, primping for dates, and getting the girls off to school is to turn to cocaine and magically transform, comic book style, into Wonder Mom.
Schuster’s novel is driven by his on-point dialogue and the development of his main female characters. Initially, Audrey does not appear to be an ideal heroine. She is intimidated by her ex-husband’s new catch, concerned about her abilities to be sexy, exciting, and interesting to men, and constantly troubled by her mothering skills – illustrated through her attempts to buy her children’s adoration with useless merchandise. In this context, her use of cocaine as both a commodity and coping mechanism is a vain and disturbing reaction to her anxieties. It is clear that Audrey’s desperation to find satisfaction by pleasing others helps her to avoid looking at herself truthfully. However, it is not until she sees herself, literally and figuratively, in a cocaine-dusted mirror and in the worried eyes of her daughters, that she finally succumbs to and embraces her human self, imperfections and all.
Audrey’s epiphany cannot take place without two of the strongest characters in this novel: her young daughters, Catherine and Lily. It’s rare to see smart, strong, and, above all, hilarious pre-teen girls in a novel that is not for or about pre-teen girls. The depth of these two young characters is accentuated by the parallels between themselves and their mother. Audrey’s “mid-life crisis” mirrors her daughters’ typical adolescent woes of fitting in, being cool, and making sense of complex issues, such as divorce, drug use, and sexuality. However, the interesting twist is that Catherine and Lily handle their transitional period much better than Audrey does, which gives a nod to young, female characters that are more than capable of holding their own in a whirlwind of adult ridiculousness.
Although Schuster’s novel seems to have women as the main target of the raging consumer culture, this is merely allegorical. Audrey’s tale is representative of broader and, more importantly, genderless American issues. In having his main woman be the “Everyman,” Schuster has cleverly dismantled the traditional formula of male characters as the sole representatives of the human condition.
Schuster’s novel could not have come out at a more appropriate time. As both a scathing take on consumerism and a tangled tale of the modern woman, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl adds yet another layer to the national discussion on the consequences of a society overrun by ads and anxieties.
Marc Schuster’s second novel, The Givers, will be available in spring 2012.
Monica D’Antonio is an English faculty member at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA. She’s not sure if she wants to be a wonder mom, so, until she decides, she’ll remain a party girl.