Rumaan Alam writes women who bond over their worry. About themselves, about each other, about the world, and often about their children. In Rich and Pretty, his sharp-witted 2016 debut novel, childhood friends Sarah and Lauren fear the unraveling of their closeness as they grow older.
In Alam’s ambitious second book, That Kind of Mother, two women—Rebecca, who is white, and Cheryl, who is black—find themselves bound not by blood or years, but by some mercurial mix of love, obligation, and shared fear. Cheryl’s mother, Priscilla, who’d worked as Rebecca’s nanny, has died of labor-related complications, and Rebecca offers to care for the surviving infant. Noting that even in grief she doesn’t “want to be someone who needs help,” Cheryl, who is nearing the end of her own pregnancy, agrees to let Rebecca intervene temporarily. Rebecca and her apprehensive husband, Christopher, soon legally adopt the baby, Andrew, as their own son, thus formalizing the familial structures that Alam constructs with gentle, unflinching honesty.
Set amid the social throes of the Reagan era, That Kind of Mother considers complex questions of loyalty and affection: What obligations do people—strangers, friends, colleagues—have to one another? Can love ever transcend the strata of race, class, and entitlement? Where it might be tempting to spin the story of Rebecca, Priscilla, and Andrew into a somber but saccharine endorsement of adoption as a cure for systemic dangers that befall black children and black mothers, Alam instead treads complicated territory with a deft hand. In doing so, he renders an intricate, sometimes uncomfortable family portrait.