The new year’s first blockbuster novel is “The Push,” by Ashley Audrain, a psychological suspense tale about a mother’s fears that her preschool-age daughter may be a psycho killer. If this premise sounds familiar, you may be recalling the Mother of All Evil Spawn Stories, the 1956 film “The Bad Seed.” (When I was growing up in New York, occasional reruns of “The Bad Seed” would play on “The Million Dollar Movie,” which featured the same “classic” film every afternoon for a week, thus imprinting it on malleable viewers’ brains.) “The Bad Seed,” which was inspired by a 1954 novel of the same name by William March, also was a psychological suspense tale about a mother who suspects her young daughter is a budding Ted Bundy in pigtails. In “The Bad Seed,” the mother gets confirmation of her ghastly suspicions pretty quickly; in Audrain’s deft and immersive thriller, the mother — and we readers — don’t know the truth until the very last line of the novel. Don’t peek.

We first meet Blythe Connor, the tormented mother who narrates “The Push,” as she’s sitting in her car at night, watching her ex-husband’s house. Is she a stalker? Unhinged? Maybe. Through the glowing windows, she spies her ex-husband, named Fox, dancing with his second wife (younger, of course) and playing with their adorable toddler son. But what keeps Blythe sitting out there in the cold and dark is Violet, the daughter she and Fox share. Violet, now on the cusp of adolescence, is framed in one of the windows, locking eyes with Blythe, the mother whose breakdown and banishment she orchestrated. Violet also killed a playmate and her younger brother Sam, the son of Blythe and Fox.

Or did she?

“The Push” is structured as a manuscript that Blythe writes for Fox to set down her version of how their once happy life together unraveled. (Blythe aspired to be a writer before the demands of stay-at-home motherhood intervened.) But, since Blythe is the walking contradiction of her name — a jittery, insecure woman who second-guesses herself constantly — questions arise about her reliability as a narrator.

Blythe’s own family history complicates her story: Her abusive grandmother committed suicide, and her moody mother deserted Blythe and her father without a backward glance. “The women in this family . . . we’re different,” her mother flatly tells Blythe as a child. Blythe worries she’s inherited damaged DNA when it comes to mothering, especially when she gives birth to Violet and feels strangely unmoved by this “warm, screaming loaf of bread” with “slimy and dark” eyes who’s placed on her chest to nurse.

Surely one of the reasons “The Push” has become so popular is that the manuscript structure of the novel allows Blythe to express such uncensored feelings about a child she dislikes (and, eventually, comes to fear). Audrain has a sharp ear for Mom’s playgroup conversations, where the other mothers begin to vent irritations with their offspring, but then abruptly rein themselves back into niceness with platitudes like, “it’s all so worth it when you see their little faces in the morning.” Blythe feels differently about baby Violet — whom she characterizes as emotionally cold and destructive.

“I felt like the only mother in the world who wouldn’t survive it . . . The only mother who couldn’t fight through the pain of newborn gums cutting like razor blades on her nipples. The only mother who couldn’t pretend to function with her brain in the vise of sleeplessness. The only mother who looked down at her daughter and thought, Please, Go away.”

Unnerving, right? Or maybe unnervingly honest.

Every age has its own parenting wisdom as well as its shameful parental anxieties. In the mid-1950s, when “The Bad Seed” was published, there was growing debate over whether nature or nurture played the larger role in childhood development, as well as an uptick in interest in the causes of juvenile delinquency and adolescent gangs. (“West Side Story,” which debuted in 1957, was another artistic by-product of this trend). Perhaps the gravity of that debate explains why March’s novel was nominated for the 1955 National Book Award. That same year, the Broadway play based on the novel was shortlisted for a Pulitzer (it lost out to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”). The 1956 movie was nominated for several Academy Awards before devolving into a lurid ’80s remake with Lynn Redgrave and countless Lifetime movie imitators.

Now, like a bad penny, the “Bad Seed” plot has turned up again. Why? Perhaps Audrain’s novel is striking a nerve with a younger generation of women exhausted by the “monstrous,” pressures of contemporary motherhood — “the push” to be unflagging, hands-on nurturers. (The book takes place in a hermetically sealed female world of playgrounds and “Mommy and Me” classes; fathers get off easy in this novel as mere clueless adjuncts.) Certainly, “The Push,” like “The Bad Seed,” is another iteration of the nature vs. nurture debate during a time when we’re more fixated than ever on the power of genes and the fates they inscribe. Whatever the sources of its larger cultural appeal, “The Push” is an ingenious reincarnation of that most forbidden of suspense narratives: the mommy-in-peril-from-her-own-monstrous-offspring.

Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.


By Ashley Audrain

Pamela Dorman Books. 320 pp. $26