The Push treads territory that’s familiar and ancient in the thriller market. Are some of us born evil?, it asks. Are some kids made to murder? Does the stain of generational trauma doom us all to failure? Depending on your point of view – and how much you like movies like The Bad Seed and We Need to Talk about Kevin, which this novel apes to some degree – and how many stories about women driven to the edge by post-partum blues you can stomach, this will be either a treat or a torture for you. I found that it fell right in the middle of the pile when it came to thrillers, mostly because the execution is too good to ignore. The book is at its best when it explores the difficulties of dealing with the effects of child abuse as an adult.
This is a story about motherhood. About Etta, born at the outset of World War II, whose homicidal urges damage her daughter; about Celia, daughter of Etta, whose lack of self-worth -spawned by Etta’s physical abuse – causes her to self-harm and abandon her own daughter. And about the two women who spring from the both of them, Blythe and Violet. And it’s also about murderous children. We’ll get there.
Blythe Connor – daughter of Celia – is determined to be the attentive, gentle, wonderful mother that her own mother was not. Unfortunately, her baby is not an innocent, easy to handle angel; Violet is difficult from the moment she’s born. She worries that all of this is related to her deep-seated issues with her own mother coming to the fore, but her husband Fox ignores her concerns, and no one else seems to notice that Violet seems to flatly hate her mother. When Blythe later gives birth to an angelic little boy named Sam, she is relieved; all of her previous worries seem to have been in her head, and the baby responds warmly to her mothering. Even Violet, who seems to only love Fox and not Blythe, adores Sam. But then a tragic accident claims a life. But was it an accident? Was it Violet’s fault?
If you’ve come across any book of this type, you know the answer to this one. The trouble with The Push isn’t that Violet is clearly a sociopathic villainess who gets away with killing another kid before likely shoving her brother into danger, it’s that she’s one of hundreds of fictional female sociopathic child characters to imprint on her oblivious daddy (who naturally blames mommy for going nutsy) and then eliminate the rivals for his affection. The tension is supposed to arise from whether or not Violet is really doing what she’s doing or if it’s all a product of her exhausted mother’s mind, but the book makes it pretty clear very quickly what’s going on. Worse, it’s strongly hinted that there is a genetic connection tying together Etta, Celia, Blythe and Violet’s abusive chain of behavior. At this point in the game – after Orphan, after Baby Teeth – authors need to up their game in terms of their plotting or make their characters more interesting if they want to pull out such hoary plot twists.
And it’s a shame, because all of Audrain’s observations – stated in sparse paragraphs which have a chilling stillness to them – about the tortures of pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, unsupportive husbands and lovers, and the hell of uncertain parental relationships – ring true. The book is visceral and gory, but the stock thriller elements of the novel detract from the real horrors it presents, which come from the average happenstances of everyday life.This would have been much stronger as a straight-up piece of category fiction rather than an attempt at a thriller, which might have made the long, dramatic, harsh slog worthwhile. There is little catharsis at the end.
The Push lands its C mostly because Audrain is a very talented writer, and she sucks the reader in easily. But the ride is one they’ve taken before.
Note: if you have a trigger, this book probably contains it. Although I have not mentioned it in the review, this story contains instances of abortion, miscarriage, sexual assault, child abuse, child abandonment, and lots of dead babies and kids.