Kaui Hart Hemmings’ new novel, “How to Party with an Infant,” is a wicked sendup of mothers groups, politically correct parenting and other artifacts of modern parenthood. Hemmings appears Friday, Aug. 12, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Mele Bart, a San Francisco single mother of 2-year-old Ellie, isn’t always crazy about other people’s children. “Bella was a tank. Gabriella looked like she was on Klonopin, and Lexi eerily resembled John Madden,” notes Mele, of the other members of a baby playgroup. “I liked Oliver, even though he’d creep me out sometimes. He had a disconcerting expression like he’d just had sex and was telling his friends about it. His laugh was also a bit diabolical. Like he’d just screwed over a drug dealer named Fang.”
The wit is often diabolical — which is to say, delicious — in Kaui Hart Hemmings’ new novel, “How to Party With an Infant” (Simon & Schuster, 225 pp., $26), a tale of life in the Bay Area mommy trenches, with just a bit of romance along the way. Mele, a native of Hawaii (the setting of Hemmings’ fine debut novel “The Descendants”), hadn’t planned to be a single parent; things just happened that way after her boyfriend responded to Mele’s announcement of an unexpected pregnancy with the news: “I’m kind of already engaged.”
On her own with a small child (and a bit of financial help from her parents) Mele writes a recipe blog and dreams of getting a book deal — the prize dangled by the San Francisco Mother’s Group Cookbook Competition. This allows Hemmings plenty of room to play with structure: The novel moves among third-person Mele, first-person Mele (as she fills out a detailed application for the contest) and several chapters from the point of view of other characters, who are telling Mele stories from their lives as they sit together at the playground. (Mele, in turn, uses those stories as inspiration for recipes. I was disappointed, though, that Hemmings didn’t toss in a few actual recipes here; it seems, as in Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn,” that they would have fit right in.)
Kaui Hart Hemmings
The author of “How to Party with an Infant” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Food aside, what makes “How to Party With an Infant” such a pleasure is its sly takedown of 21st-century parenting: the parents of “organic, free-range babies dressed to look like a migrant worker”; the “consultant” who founded a company called “Poop in the Potty Forever LLC” (which offers “private educational services and potty boot camps” — and if this is a real thing, I don’t want to hear about it); a wealthy mother who allows only wooden toys in her home, “not because of safety concerns but because plastic figurines didn’t blend with the home’s décor.” The latter’s daughter Bella has baby furniture and toys that “looked like small versions of what Bella would own if she grew up to be a woman who summered in a vineyard and hung paintings in her kitchen with titles like An Elegant Flower in a Modest Garden.”
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Underneath this wicked wit, though, is a warm heart. Mele’s adoration for her unexpected treasure of a daughter shines through every page, and her friends Georgia and Barrett, in two separate chapters, tell sweet tales of connection with their teenage children. At her son’s 13th birthday party, Barrett begins to sing “Happy Birthday To You,” and the party guests join in, “their voices surprisingly soft so the whole moment feels like a séance, a plea to some ghost, an elegy to childhood and times you once fiercely knew.”