Book Review: Collaborators

Jill Palmer, Print Design Head Honch

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“My mother lied to me about everything…She crooned and ranked and cooked up powerful storms of lies that held like uncalled-for weather over my childhood” – Janet Kauffman (1986).

Ever since I was a young child, I have always been always drawn to about mothers and daughters. This meant I loved titles such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. From a young age, I found this relationship dynamic to be particularly compelling, as it is complex, often more so than is originally let on.

It is for that reason that I picked Collaborators from Beeghly Library’s “Juniata Authors” shelf. As a professional writing POE, I was interested in seeing the type of authors that Juniata College have produced, and on the surface level Collaborators seemed like the kind of subject matter I would enjoy. This slim novel by Janet Kauffman features protagonist Andrea Doria, who throughout the story is mostly referred to simply as Dovie, and her relationship with her mother. Dovie’s mother is a Mennonite woman who suffers from a stroke in her later years, first losing her memory and then eventually her life. From the beginning, though, it is clear that the mother/daughter duo in Collaborators is far different than the relationship between Alcott’s Margaret March and her daughters.

Dovie’s chaotic relationship with her mother is at the forefront of this book, which is a bit of an unusual pick for me as a reader. There were times when I was very put off by Dovie’s bitterness and her attitude towards not only her mother, but the other people around her. She’s angry, perhaps for good reason, but seldom does Dovie exhibit any other personality traits beyond her incredible rage towards her mother. Quite often, Collaborators reads a lot like a 130-page angst poem rather than a novel. Even if her anger is justified, as a reader I had immense difficulty liking the main character in this one.

Still, there was much in the book I could relate to. Like Dovie, I also believed my parents to be flawless when I was a child—only to realize that my mother is a person capable of making mistakes just like everyone else. Likewise, my eldest nephew is 5 years old now, and he constantly tells me all the things he knows about the world. For instance, how the sun helps the flowers grow, and that you need to eat your veggies to grow up healthy and strong. These are the facts of life that he knows to be true because his mama told him, and mama is always right. Similarly, Dovie spent much of her childhood believing her mother to be incapable of being wrong, before eventually growing up and realizing that no one is perfect, not even mothers.

It is worth noting that while Kauffman’s book is titled Collaborators, a novel by Janet Kauffman, it reads more like a compilation of lyrical essays. While beautifully written, I found the organization to be very disorienting. Each chapter of Collaborators typically features a standalone event in Dovie’s life with her mother, with little to no continuation from one chapter to the next. This fragmentation was often confusing for me as a reader, particularly when Kauffman skips ahead months or even years of time. Because of this, I often got lost while reading this book, in the sense that I did not know where we were going or where I had just been.

For someone interested in studying form, Collaborators contains a lot of beautifully worded phrases, which makes the lines feel closer to poetry than prose. This makes sense, as the author was in fact awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for her poetry. Perhaps that means that Collaborators would work better as a poetry book rather than a novel.