Book review: ‘Glitter and Glue: A Memoir’ by Kelly Corrigan

Random House/Ballantine - Kelly Corrigan and her mother. Corrigan’s latest book, “Glitter and Glue,” is a memoir about their reconciliation.

Nora Krug is an editor in The Washington Post’s Health and Science section.

It would be easy to snark at the cliches that riddle Kelly Corrigan’s popular books. Corrigan, whose work appears in O, the Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping, is less interested in the mommy wars than in simply being a mommy: “I always wanted kids — more than all other things. Not very Harvard Business School of me, I know,” she wrote in her best-selling 2010 book, “Lift.”

In an era of hand-wringing parenting — from tiger moms determined to edit that college essay one more time to tired mothers resigned not to — she is a warm hug to the messiness that is motherhood. In her books and speeches, the message is disarmingly reassuring: Yeah, she says, it’s hard being a mom, but we have each other, and that’s all we need. We can do this.

(Random House/Ballantine) - “Glitter and Glue: A Memoir” by Kelly Corrigan.

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See how easy that was? To read, if not to believe?

Corrigan’s latest book, “Glitter and Glue,” a memoir about reconciling with her mother, is another installment in her homespun, girl-next-door oeuvre and — dare I say it? — her brand. Among the first stops of her book tour is the Madison Avenue outpost of Talbots, a catered event where she talks about the book with parenting writer Lisa Belkin. “And then,” she writes on her Web site, “I will be your personal shopper.” In addition to stops at other Talbots around the country, her tour will feature a luncheon at the Country Club of Darien, Conn., and a fundraiser for her former high school.

In many ways Corrigan embodies the Talbots image — if by that you mean a clean-cut suburban mom who always looks nice but in an unassuming, unimaginative way. You wouldn’t expect to see her pop up at H&M or Uniqlo. The same might be said of her books. What they lack in sophistication, they make up for in their lack of pretension.

Corrigan writes with warmth and delicate humor about what in another time might have been called women’s concerns — raising children, marriage, female friendships, grown-up relationships with parents — much as Anna Quindlen and Anne Lamott , two writers with whom she often shares a stage. Very few of her observations are surprising, and this prosaicness is more apparent in “Glitter and Glue” than in her richer, more polished 2008 memoir, “The Middle Place.” “What a colossal waste,” she writes in her new book, “that we can only appreciate certain riches — clean clothes, hot showers, good health, mothers — in their absence.” Who hasn’t heard that before?

Still, it’s hard to resist Corrigan’s emotional tug. You may want to roll your eyes at the hugely popular YouTube video of her reading her essay “Transcending: Words on Women and Strength,” but you’re more likely to find yourself wiping them. The video features photos of women bonding as a gentle guitar strums in the background and Corrigan reads, her Pennsylvania-accented voice cracking with emotion: “We will cry as we howl, as we clutch, as we circle. We will transcend, ladies!”

There’s also this: At 36, Corrigan got a diagnosis of breast cancer, an experience that served as the centerpiece of “The Middle Place.” “This is exactly what being an adult is,” she wrote, “. . . untangling a pink princess boa while wondering if you are a month away from losing both breasts, both ovaries, and your father.”

On the page and in speeches (and sometimes even clad in an outfit from Talbots), Corrigan is hard not to like and respect. After her diagnosis, she started a Web site (now defunct) offering advice on how to help a friend with cancer. Later, she founded an arts performance program whose proceeds go to the children’s hospital where her daughter was treated for meningitis. “My worldview,” she writes on her Web site: “People are struggling; make yourself useful.”

In her new book, Corrigan is facing another health crisis — she has just had her ovaries removed, and now there’s a new breast lump to worry about. She finds herself turning, unexpectedly, to her mother. A steely real estate agent and churchgoer who “loves sauerkraut and anchovies and pearl onions” and “likes her first drink to be vodka — one full jigger, over ice, with a lemon rind” — Mary Corrigan was for her daughter a source of, as a nice girl would put it, aggravation. She “looked at motherhood less as a joy to be relished than as a job to be done,” her daughter writes, “serious work with serious repercussions, and I left childhood assuming our way of being with each other, adversarial but functional, was as it would be.”

But after the birth of her children and her health problems, the younger Corrigan comes to realize that her mother is the “glue” of her family, the one who sternly held it together (her father, a glad-handing former University of Maryland lacrosse star, was the “glitter”). The mother-daughter tensions Corrigan must overcome here are not the stuff of “The Liars’ Club” or “The Glass Castle” (among her mother’s crimes: allowing her daughter to spend only $20 on her prom dress), but something more familiar. “What is it about a living mother,” Corrigan asks, “that makes her so hard to see, to feel, to want, to love, to like?”

To answer this, Corrigan looks back on a formative experience of her early adulthood, when she went to Australia seeking adventure and instead found herself learning how to be a mother. She seems to have selected this extended anecdote for many reasons, but foremost among them is that, while in Australia, she worked as a nanny for a family whose mother had recently died of cancer. I don’t want to be her, is the imperative the present-day Corrigan seems to be shouting — at herself and us. Over the course of more than 150 pages, she relives her 20-something coming of age, mining it for nuggets of wisdom, for the clues it might offer about her own mother, before bringing us back to the present — and that breast lump.

And readers will be thankful for the return to the now, because here comes a criticism: This extended flashback that forms the backbone of “Glitter and Glue” is flabby and its connections forced. In short, it’s boring. It doesn’t offer any insight — cliched or otherwise — that the 40-something Corrigan couldn’t say better.

Corrigan and her mother are a colorful duo — one can easily see them sparring while sipping vodkas, clad in dueling outfits from Talbots, and then embracing in a hard-won hug. “She won’t sit still for a lot of blah-de-blah,” Corrigan says of her mother late in the book; she doesn’t want to hear that her daughter admires her, “the quiet hero of 168 Wooded Lane, for the way she marched head-on into each uncertain moment, changing as the circumstances demanded,” but readers do. Then we want Corrigan to take us shopping.

Nora Krug is an editor in The Washington Post’s Health and Science section.

GLITTER AND GLUE

A Memoir

By Kelly Corrigan

Ballantine. 224 pp. $26

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