Ruth Pennebaker on Mothers, Daughters and the Things We Don't Know About Those We Love the Most

Mainstream author Ruth Pennebaker on the extremely challenging but, often extremely rewarding, relationships that fuel her latest tale. 

My new novel, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, centers on what I think is the richest, most complicated relationship around – the mother-daughter relationship.

I wrote the novel for all kinds of reasons – the way any author writes a book, I guess. But one of the most compelling reasons is that I had a very troubled relationship with my own mother, who died 13 years ago, but I’m hopeful my relationship with my grown daughter will be far better. Anyway, I’m familiar with mother-daughter conflict and mother-daughter love.

In the book, three generations of women are living under one small roof. Ivy, the 76-year-old, has lost her savings in the recession; Joanie, Ivy’s daughter, has gone back into the workplace after her husband divorced her; and Caroline, Joanie’s 15-year-old daughter, pines for an unattainable boy in her Spanish class and dyes her hair hot pink to show she’s an individual.

The novel’s told from the perspective of each of the three women as they try to find their place in a changing world.

Joanie’s working with far-younger colleagues and trying to catch up with professional life after staying at home for decades. Since she’s a little pissed at her ex-husband, she’s given up on men and sex, and attends a divorcee support group that often erupts into chaos. Oh, and Joanie’s ex-husband, with impeccable timing, has gotten his latest girlfriend pregnant. Imagine what the support group thinks about that.

In the meantime, Caroline is lost in a big high school. She’s shy, she’s awkward, she’s tired of the adults in her life messing up, and she doesn’t think any teenage girl should have to share a bathroom with her grandmother. She’s experimenting with marijuana so she can find her true artistic self.

Then there’s Ivy, who lived a safe, kind of boring life for decades until her husband died and her savings went south in the recession. Now she’s been forced to move in with her daughter and granddaughter and she feels like her life has changed beyond recognition. Who cares about elderly women? She takes up a little shoplifting, partly out of boredom, partly because she resents a world that’s moving too quickly, that she can’t find a place in.

More than anything, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough is about how you can live closely with other people – even people you love – and still not understand who they are or what their heartaches are. It’s about reaching a better understanding of one another and learning to love a little better.

Maybe, like a lot of writers, I write so I can create a small world and control what happens in it and tell a story. Fiction can be controlled and your life can’t. Or maybe, all these years after my mother’s death, I’m still trying to understand the mother-daughter relationship, still trying to be a better mother myself.

- Ruth Pennebaker

You can pick up your own copy of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough on shelves now!