A Dark, Minimalist Tale: Postpartum on Upper West Side

A Mouthful of Air , by Amy Koppelman. MacAdam/Cage, 212 pages, $23.

Two years ago, I was giddily anticipating motherhood. Yet when my son burst into a fluorescent world, wailing, I sank into darkness. I saw the baby as an intruder, kidnapper of my husband, spoiler of my wonderfully uncluttered life. Dutifully I ooh ‘d and aah ‘d, breast-fed around the clock and relied on my sturdy British insides to “get on with it.” Desperate as I felt, mine was just a bad case of “the baby blues.” Six weeks later, the alchemy of hormones undid its spell and I was released.

Julie Davis, the “tallishy attractive” protagonist in Amy Koppelman’s exquisitely dark debut novel, isn’t so lucky. We meet her on the eve of her son’s first birthday and a few weeks after a wrist-slitting suicide attempt, referred to only as the “accident.” Diagnosed with chronic postpartum depression, she’s on the anti-depressant Zoloft, which allows her to exist, at least in a robotic, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other sense. Her husband, Ethan, is hopelessly supportive, believing that “faith alone is enough to make anything happen.” Since the accident, a live-in Filipina nanny has been installed at their Upper West Side apartment to keep one eye on the baby and both eyes on Julie, her real charge.

A meek mother is hateful and irritating, and at first I was mad at Amy Koppelman for creating a woman so helpless and inept. Julie’s anguish is described as: “Not, oh I’m so depressed I can’t get those shoes in my size depressed, but depressed depressed.” Fine, but where’s her chutzpah, birthright of every nice Jewish girl from New York? I wanted her to muster some gumption at least for the sake of her child. Or just to tell the often-patronizing Ethan to go fuck himself. It wasn’t Zoloft she needed, it was spunk. Then I realized my fury was precisely why this book was written: that society’s ideals for new mothers don’t allow for depression. “Motherhood equals bliss,” we’re told with geese-fly-south certainty. Yet the truth can be so stark, such a shift from that ideal, that women are often paralyzed, caught between what’s expected and a far more complex reality. Still, I had sailed out of the fog, and I needed Julie Davis to do so, too. “Postpartum” was a media buzzword uttered alongside Andrea Yates and all the other drowning, smothering, heinous moms. How little I knew about the struggle of women who, unlike me, remain in bleak-mother country, held hostage by this frightening disease.

Ms. Koppelman’s prose is minimalist and poetic. It’s so pared-down it takes on a brittle quality, much like Julie’s condition. The sentences are simple: “She turns off her light and returns to their bed. In another fifteen minutes she will wake the little boy for his day. Get him dressed. Fix him breakfast. Drive him to play group. Throughout each of these tasks she smiles, pretending that she’s okay. That it’s easy for her to beat the eggs, to buckle him into his car seat, to begin.” This is an empty-eyed woman going through the motions, unable to chit-chat, struggling to find normality. The use of the third person is powerful: It distances the protagonist from the story, the way Julie is detached from herself. Her comings and goings are reported, listed and itemized, leaving the reader to play shrink at the end of each spare sentence.

A subplot involving incest is sketchy. Here, I found the author’s sparse style irritating: Less wasn’t more, it was merely too little. The account of the crime in question isn’t clear at all, and it’s too ugly a can of worms to open and leave lying around. Luckily, the psychological damage inflicted on Julie is apparent, and Ms. Koppelman deftly weaves in another of society’s taboo topics-the never-ending cycle of abuse. She presents three generations of damage, soon to be four. Not that Julie’s love for her son is ever in question, but any child exposed to such high doses of hopelessness is likely to go straight from crib to couch.

The story gets darker still when Julie discovers that she’s pregnant again and must stop popping her tiny blue pills. As if that’s not enough, Ethan decides a relocation to Long Island is in order, and soon Julie must attend Tupperware parties (in the year 2000!) hosted by the Gucci brigade. Even the most hormonally balanced Manhattanite isn’t likely to survive that.

A Mouthful of Air is a satisfying antidote to the now-hackneyed Mothers Struggling and Juggling Babies and Hedge Funds story line. Julie Davis belongs to a fresh breed of fem-lit characters: Moms Who Just Can’t Cope. (It’s a new trend: first The Hours , and now an upcoming film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath, suicidal poet and mother of two.) Let’s hope all this mainstreaming of postpartum will help demystify the illness and de-demonize the women who suffer from it.

Amy Koppelman, a 33-year-old mother of two, deserves praise for plunging heart-first into deep waters -and for bravely refusing to redeem Julie Davis. This is a story so convincing that never again will you pass a new mother on the street without wondering what’s behind her mouthful of smiles.

Judy D’Mello is a freelance writer in Manhattan