Mothers and Marginalization: Cherise Wolas’s The Resurrection of Joan Ashby

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When I was in high school and fervently reading too many Jezebel articles, I wrote a letter to myself, stuck it in an envelope, sealed it, neatly labeled it “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 2020,” and tucked it in the back of my diary. The letter was two pages of stern point-by-point argument. Its purpose? To convince my possibly baby-crazy future self not to have kids, thus saving myself from the shackles of structural inequality and a life of servitude.

You can see that exact blend of youthful, norms-smashing conviction in the first few pages of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas, which opens with a profile of the titular fictional character as a towering light in 1980s American letters. That profile includes a list Ashby wrote in her own diary as a thirteen-year-old: “4. Write every day. 5. Rewrite every day. 6. Avoid crushes and love. 7. Do not entertain any offer of marriage. 8. Never ever have children. 9. Never allow anyone to get in my way.” In the following thirty pages, Joan meets a dashing surgeon, gets married, and finds out she’s pregnant in rapid succession. Resurrection is a story about acts of creation, some more reluctant than others: what happens to a woman who has kids and desperately didn’t want them, whose life work is generating rich alternate universes? The book is as finely wrought as a jewelry box, but enclosed somehow, airless even when it tries to be expansive.

To its credit, Resurrection is not a book about an unwilling mother whose worldview is entirely changed once she gives birth. The act of raising a child itself is not ennobling: when Joan’s children are little, she thinks about her life’s “soft poetry and hard tediousness, its spectacular, love-ridden times measured against meaningless hours and days and weeks and months.” It’s a description that could fit pretty much any life, poetic in its averageness.

But Joan weathers a series of injustices from her husband and two sons, the men in her life, each one negating and compounding the impact of Joan’s choices until the central, all-obliterating betrayal, an amazing plot twist that leaves Joan feeling the full weight of the twenty-eight years she spent without publishing a single word. Throughout, Wolas gives an especially careful accounting of the way mothers can be quietly marginalized: at one juncture, forced to choose between caring for her son and writing, “Joan thinks then that writers have infinite choices and mothers nearly no choice at all.” And after her husband Martin draws up plans to renovate their home, “not a single room, Joan would discover, belonged only to her.”

I’ll admit: in these moments and the many others Wolas pointedly renders, I felt my inner seventeen-year-old rearing: Burn it all to the ground and never have kids! Which is why the book’s thesis on motherhood, expounded much later in the book when Joan travels to India, bewildered me:

Is motherhood inescapably entwined in female life, a story every woman ends up telling, whether or not she sought or desired that bond; her nourishment, her caretaking, her love, needed by someone standing before her, hands held out, heart demanding succor, commanding her not to look away, but to dig deep, give of herself unstintingly, offer up everything she can?

Joan is thinking about the older women who have taken her into their orbits, who teach and care for children both literal and metaphorical, as well as a writing class she herself is “mothering.” But it’s not clear why this nurturing resides only in “female life,” other than that all the characters who do it in Resurrection are women. Motherhood is a convenient metaphor, but it feels essentialist—aren’t men capable of that same nourishing self-sacrifice? (Or shouldn’t they be?) Giving unstintingly to someone demanding help sounds noble, but also a little too much like what got Joan into this mess in the first place.

On that other crucial aspect of Joan’s life, writing, Wolas writes like someone well-acquainted with the trenches. Despite her genius, Joan struggles with long lapses in her writing and self-recrimination about those lapses. She gets touchy whenever Martin asks her if he can read any of her writing—an “inquisition,” she calls it—and eventually decides to tell everyone she’s stopped writing and just do it in secret, all while being fiercely protective of the time she’s covertly carved out to write. “[Joan] debated how long the duration could be, without writing, before a writer was no longer considered a writer.” What writer hasn’t thought that?

But this keen-eyed portrayal of a struggling writerly life is overshadowed by the rarefied atmosphere Wolas’s characters seem to move in, an upper echelon of existence. Her husband Martin is an acclaimed surgeon who travels the world bringing sight to the blind, naming procedures, and getting written up in the New York Times; Joan’s son Eric becomes a founder and CEO of a multimillion dollar tech company at thirteen—accelerated even for the ludicrous youth of Silicon Valley. Daniel, the son who feels like “a commoner” in the family, lands a gig as a columnist at a prestigious financial magazine right out of college, where he writes 20,000 words every week about whatever he wants, and somehow still feels bad about his lot in life. And Joan, of course, is a genius—she’s dogged by paparazzi just for writing two arty story collections, which might be the pipe dream of every MFA candidate in the world.

Even the places the characters frequent are all impeccably appointed: Joan’s family house has a glen and a knoll; Daniel’s cavernous post-grad apartment in DC has couches that match the walls, and Eric’s cottage in the Indian town Dharamshala is “celestial,” with French windows and flowers everywhere. (One wonders what the other homes in Dharamshala look like.)

You can see these beautiful, hollow spaces recurring again and again, even in Joan’s fiction, of which we receive large helpings. A woman in an MFA program shanks another to death after stealing her story ideas—a terrifying sort of tunnel vision where artistic achievement is the only meaningful end. Joan publishes a whole collection about a kid trapped in a coma and his own head, and the fictive places he roams. Her later works, after she gives birth, are gentler, more concerned with art as an uplifting, healing force—one is about an artists’ colony and another about an ancient, idiosyncratic, powerful sculptor named Paloma Rosen, who is nevertheless confined to a walk-up in New York because of her bad knees.

Writing, art, and creation are elevated and pure, the book seems to say, spiritual acts separated from the dross of everyday life. (“Joan leaned back and thought the act of writing had never felt as exquisitely important, so much like prayer.”) So Joan’s “resurrection”—a word laden with religious resonance—occurs when she travels to India, begins to write again, and engages in meditation and chanting.

At this point Resurrection starts reading like a particularly well-written self-help parable, vaguely pushing you to fulfill your dreams (but only if your dreams involve surpassing literary ambition). At every turn, it seems, Joan meets an older woman on her trip who dispenses relevant wisdom to her, just in passing. (Among the advice: “Whoever you were as a child, she’s your future.” “The first thing you need to figure out is exactly who you are, only then can you become who you want to be.” “You need to commune, not with nature at large, or the history of where you are, but with your own nature and your own history.”) One wishes insight were tougher to win on a spiritual journey.

It works, of course—the meditation, the chanting, the writing. But there’s something empty about this form of spirituality. Joan doesn’t grapple with any particular creed or belief system, she’s just going through the motions, and somehow the mere sheen of enlightenment inherent in these activities is enough to get her there. And it’s striking how many of the people she meets in Dharamshala are white, including one of her sons, and how functional this Indian town is to them. Dharamshala is “a place to figure things out,” someone says.

Despite all this, these older women Joan meets—Vita, Camille, Ela—are important. They represent life’s infinite variation and possibility, that there’s always a way to bounce back from massive setbacks and pain, that you can begin again and have a rich life even (gasp!) as a mature woman, something that the book’s sweeping length reflects as well. “[Joan] will keep to herself her own astonishment that the memories of these seven years are beginning to fade, that the human mind can cauterize the misery, allow a strong woman to pick back up where she was, to recover her inherent power, unleash her personal intention, grab at what she wants, now that she is again free.”

But after I finished reading, I craved something humbler, less exalted, more real. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby tries to get at the uplifting power of creation, but in doing so it ends up becoming what so much art created in a vacuum is: self-indulgent and out of touch. And the book ends with a moment that sums that up perfectly. Joan sets out on a three-day trip across Dharamshala’s Kangra Valley, reaches the top of a peak, and—alone, miles away from any real humans or their messy, hard lives—she thinks, “This is what it feels like to be home in the world.” Only from this far up, wholly disconnected from the reality Wolas herself observes so sharply earlier in the book, is it possible for motherhood to be proclaimed “a story every woman ends up telling,” an act of creation as great as any artistic masterpiece.

Chelsea Leu is Books Editor at The Rumpus, and a writer and critic who's written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, WIRED, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, and other publications. More from this author →