Nature vs. Nurture, and Nature Wins

Review: The Push by Audrey Audrain

by Wynter K Miller

There is little I can imagine that is more terrifying than pregnancy. I respect (of course) the opinions of the countless women who consider the process of reproduction “beautiful,” but for me personally, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea of my body as a shared space. There isn’t enough room in here for me, let alone someone else. However, after reading Ashley Audrain’s The Push, it appears that I’ve spent so much time dreading pregnancy that I haven’t allocated nearly enough fear for what comes next: motherhood.

If you aren’t sure you want to have kids, Audrain’s debut will, at the very least, give you an unhealthy dose of doubt.

The novel opens in the narrator’s perspective. Blythe is sitting in a car on Christmas Eve watching a family through their front window. Blythe’s situation — alone in a cold landscape — is juxtaposed with the idyllic scene inside the home. The children, an adolescent girl and a toddler-age boy, wear matching pajamas; the husband slow dances with his wife; there is a plate of cookies for Santa Claus. It is immediately obvious — because Blythe’s narration is a second-person letter drafted to Fox, her ex-husband and the man in the living room — that this family, or a version of it, once belonged to Blythe. At one point, in the midst of the festivities, the daughter notices Blythe; she makes eye contact from the window but doesn’t mention Blythe’s presence to anyone else. The exchange feels sinister, and introduces the novel’s central question: What happened — why is Blythe on the outside looking in?

The Push was marketed as a thriller, and in terms of eliciting the moods associated with that genre — anxiety, dread, suspense — Audrain’s debut delivers. After the opening scene, Blythe takes the reader back in time and linearly describes the start and dissolution of her marriage, punctuated by brief anecdotes about Blythe’s family history. Blythe’s grandmother, Etta, abused her mother, Cecilia, who then treated her own daughter, Blythe, with extreme neglect, eventually abandoning her. Against this backdrop, Blythe cedes to her husband’s desire to have a child, albeit with understandable hesitancy. In the ensuing months, motherhood turns out to be everything Blythe feared it might be. In her infancy, Violet is difficult and, absent the ability to articulate emotions, manifests her dislike of Blythe behaviorally. She only ever cries in her mother’s arms. The feeling, much as Blythe tries to smother it, is mutual. She can’t escape the suspicion that something is wrong with her daughter. As a toddler, Violet develops into a manipulative, calculating, potentially murderous child. And, of course, all the while, Fox sees and suspects nothing. Eventually, a tragedy occurs that Blythe cannot reconcile: her second child, with whom Blythe shares the expected maternal bond, dies in an “accident.” In the aftermath, Fox finds another wife.

… Does this sound familiar?

From page one of The Push, I was waiting for it, “it” being the thing that would make this story anything other than a straight-up reboot of The Bad Seed.

But it never happens. There is no twist. Ostensibly, Etta’s and Cecilia’s story arcs are meant to destabilize Blythe’s character in the reader’s mind, to make the reader question the reliability of the narrator. But if Audrain wanted me to wonder whether Violet was evil, or whether Blythe was just too damaged by her lineage to love Violet appropriately, I never really did.

For readers that go to genre fiction — be it mystery, thriller, horror, romance, etc. — for the comfort of the formula, recognizable characters and tropes and plot development, The Push is likely to disappoint. It triggers the edge-of-your-seat reflex, but it doesn’t supply a traditional twist. If great thrillers need both — suspense and a surprise — without the latter, Audrain only has half the recipe. For readers like myself who usually only read genre if it’s marketed as cross-genre (e.g., literary horror like the work of Brian Evenson), Audrain’s attempt at a layered narrative lacks emotional complexity. Etta and Cecilia felt like add-ons, unsuccessful red herrings. At the end of the day, Audrain is writing in a heavily saturated market. The prose in The Push is solid, but solid prose isn’t enough to save an unoriginal story. And if “original” was not Audrain’s intent, then her deviation from the thriller formula is ill-advised.

Rating: 1.5 stars

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.