What happens when the urge to ditch your family outpaces the desire to love them? The stories in Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, attempt to answer this question, heading straight for the messiness of domestic relationships and the constraints society places on women as they navigate their obligations. Daughters desert their rheumy-eyed elders in dusty museums, steal a mother’s favorite teacup, or consider throwing their dead parents’ nostalgia-riddled belongings out the window. Mothers conclude that they love one child more than their others. Fathers puzzle over a wife’s inability to balance family and career or accuse a partner of blaming their child for her own misdeeds. Women mourn the children they decided not to have and fret over the legacy they’ll leave the children they do have. But sometimes the generations reconcile or siblings manage to rescue each other. Love tears these people apart, but it mends them too.
The emotions expressed in these stories are combustible, both fraught and nuanced, uncontrollable and common, but above all often ignored or hushed because we’re not supposed to be bored by our children or annoyed with our aged parents, even as we love them. The careful shapes of these stories adapted from fairy tales, verse, letters, or newspaper announcements, the surprise of their wordplay, and the blaze of their lyrical sentences allow them to dig into and contain all those messy emotions at the same time. In these works, constraint creates both understanding and fire.