You know how sometimes it’s great to watch movies or read books that are set in a place you’re familiar with? Because you recognise the landmarks, the stereotypes, the atmosphere of a place? Cry Baby made me feel a whole lot of those things, but not necessarily in a warm and fuzzy way.
It made me uncomfortable – and if you are a mother of a certain type, who lives in the suburbs in this weird and wonderful country we call home, it will make you feel uncomfortable too.
The back cover blurb describes it as a “stinging satirical slap across the face of barren suburbia” and oh my, it is that. It paints a bleak picture of suburban Johannesburg, in the “barren outback” that is Fourways and of the characters that live there.
It so accurately describes the packs of “perfect Mommies” who can be found hanging out in the school parking lot, gossiping over their skinny lattes at Mugg & Bean or standing on the side of the cricket pitch as they cheer for their degenerate darlings.
The story centres around Grace, a stay-at-home Mom, who lives in a mock Tuscan cluster home in Fourways with her husband Michael and two sons. Sam is the youngest and he’s been having a few problems. He’s been disruptive at school, wetting the bed and generally unsettled at night. As we learn more about Sam’s issues, the facade of Grace’s “perfect” life starts to come crashing down. She starts to question everything: her marriage, her role as a mother and even her own happiness.
I don’t like to give the plot away in reviews, so that’s all I’ll say about the story. Except to emphasise that the pace is fast, there’s an interesting little twist and some redemption for the characters at the end. What I do want to talk about instead is how the book made me feel, because isn’t that the most important part? Sure, we want books to entertain us, but we also want them to force us to think.
I’m relatively new to Joburg and to the Mommy scene as well. Aqua Tots, Clamber Club, Toddler Taming books, Pappachinos – these are all things I had never heard of before I had kids, and ones that I now know too well. Along with this array of new concepts, comes with it a new breed of person you may never have encountered before, the uber-competitive and “perfect” Mommy. She of the botoxed face, the pedicured toes and the perfectly highlighted hair. She’s on the PTA, she flirts with your husband and her kids are HER WORLD.
I may not have the highlighted hair or the botox, but there are parts of this woman that are me. And that’s where it hurts. I’ve joined the rat race, without even realising it. And although me and my friends are very different to the people in the book (thank God), there is still an element in Joburg of getting your kids into “a certain school”, of living in a particular area and of driving a certain car.
You can try and run from the cliches (and ignore them with everything you’ve got) – but they are ever present and hovering on the edge of your peripheral vision. And so maybe that is why this book made me uncomfortable, because it forced me to face certain truths about my life and how other people may see it.
The struggles Grace deals with may be set in the Joburg suburbs, but they are universal ones. Motherhood brings with it a whole new batch of insecurities, and sometimes, the loss of oneself. But being a mother also brings with it so much beauty and so much love, and Cry Baby touches on all of these. Many of the questions Grace and Michael are asking themselves are questions we should be asking ourselves all the time. Because after all, life is about finding meaning, wherever in the world you are.
I really enjoyed this book – mostly for the satirical look it takes at the world I have unwillingly found myself in. But also because it’s a story of how we can find happiness within the madness, but only if we know where to look.
This review has since been republished on Penguin South Africa’s blog: Classy Bird