When I was ten or eleven, a jacket-less hardback edition of The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough came into our home. My mom probably bought it from a used book store, and because it was kept it my parents’ bedroom, it naturally caught my fascination.
Having ferreted out various Mills and Boon and historical romance novels from around house, I had assumed it would have a similar plot structure. Instead, it was a harrowing and emotionally complicated generational saga about the grueling life of a farming family in the Australian outback. One plot point involves an illicit relationship with a member of the clergy, something that scandalized yet fascinated my Catholic school-bred sensibilities. None of the characters seem truly happy by the end of the book, even those who ended up with someone. There is a death by wild boar.
It felt like the first truly adult piece of literature I’ve ever read, and I distinctly remember thinking, “My mom also reads books like this.”
It probably speaks to my narcissism as a child that I thought that books were my thing alone, and that my parents didn’t particularly engage with books. For instance, where did I think those Mills and Boon books came from? I have a very hazy memory of approaching my mom to talk about The Thorn Birds after I finished it, and while I cannot remember the specifics of our conversation, I remember that she took me seriously, and that she never admonished me for wanting to reading a book for adults. Thus begun a lifelong relationship between us (together with my sister), a family relationship negotiated through books.
Because they are so near to us, it’s sometimes difficult to think of your parents as people who are wholly human, with interests and tastes that can be complicated and idiosyncratic. I have shared my enthusiasm for books with my mom throughout the years, but I always end up getting surprised by the kind of things she ends up loving. I’ve pegged her a long time ago as a thriller and crime fiction person, but in recent years I have observed her thrill over reading intensely immersive genre series that I never thought she’d enjoy.
There was the time when both the The Harry Potter Series and The Hunger Games trilogy went through our house like wildfire, complete with the ensuing power struggle for book copies because someone was reading too slowly and/or threatening to reveal spoilers. I was caught off-guard when she became so passionate for them. My assumption–which is horrifically wrong, by the way–was that these series served a very specific generational thing, and those who weren’t caught up by the wave as it happened would never like it with as much investment. There was something special about talking with my mom about the books and finding out that she cried at the end of the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Because I cried at exactly the same part.
I guess my mom will always end up surprising me, because book people always surprise me. Being a lifelong reader is a constant negotiation of what feels comfortable for you and what can push you to love things that redefine those boundaries. My mom has delved into the world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series in a way that I haven’t been able to, and it’s opening me up to understanding how certain stories resonate. And how certain stories become more imbued with meaning because they’ve resonated for someone you care about.