A Novel


By Kristen Iskandrian

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Marrying the sharp insights of Jenny Offill with the dark humor of Maria Semple, Motherest is an inventive and moving coming-of-age novel that captures the pain of fractured family life, the heat of new love, and the particular magic of the female friendship — all through the lens of a fraying daughter-mother bond.

It’s the early 1990s, and Agnes is running out of people she can count on. A new college student, she is caught between the broken home she leaves behind and the wilderness of campus life. What she needs most is her mother, who has seemingly disappeared, and her brother, who left the family tragically a few years prior.

As Agnes falls into new romance, mines female friendships for intimacy, and struggles to find her footing, she writes letters to her mother, both to conjure a closeness they never had and to try to translate her experiences to herself. When she finds out she is pregnant, Agnes begins to contend with what it means to be a mother and, in some ways, what it means to be your own mother.


O children, O my children, you have a city,

You have a home, and you can leave me behind you,

And without your mother you may live there forever.

—Euripides, The Medea

I broke a mirror, in which I figured you.

—John Berryman, The Dream Songs

Book One

The Mother Hole

When my mother caught me rummaging in her nightstand, she said, You must never look in there again. She said, Certain things are private. Do you know what private means? I did, but I told her I didn’t, which was maybe my version of what private meant. When something is private, she said, it belongs only to you. From then on, I understood my mother to be private, in how she kept herself to herself, and in how, in my mind, she belonged only to me. I really thought I was entitled to her, to the most intimate parts of her, which seemed to be in that drawer: photos, a Bible, stacks of letters held together with rubber bands, a diary. None of it helped me. Most of it probably wrecked me. But sometimes, that’s how you know something is working. The world may have been destroyed by a flood—but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need the rain.

Dear Mom,

The thing about college is the bodies. They are everywhere. I feel like we were all sent to one place to figure out how to be in one, what to do with the fact of them, and how close and how far to move them in relation to one another. I try to imagine what we might look like from space, clustered and worrying, how we would probably only be discernible in clumps, the solitary ones not registering on the infrared screen or whatever the technology is. I’ve been in some rooms that reek of desperation, that rapey cologne smell of boys sitting around marinating their impulses, their collective ideas about girls like some weird psychic orgy. Those are the rooms, the parties, you run away from. Or to, depending, I guess.

I want to tell you about how many boys I’ve laid under (2) and how both of them felt the same. I want you to come here and wash my sheets and tell me the truth about my clothes, about the people I’ve met. I want you to see me working in the dining hall. I want you to come with me to my classes, comment on my professors, on what they’re making me read. None of this will happen, I know. It wouldn’t happen even if you were another mother. But being the mother you are, it’s not just impractical. It’s impossible. You are not available. You don’t want to be summoned.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my whole life in terms of having grown up at the end of a cul-de-sac. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a certain “not a thru street” psychology to my time here. Everyone seems busy planning their futures, whereas I honestly can’t even imagine tomorrow. I think I like the sense of safety that only a dead end can offer.

There is that picture Dad took on my first day—the last day I saw you—where I’m standing outside the student center, the place they told us would be “command central” or whatever, where we’d be spending all of our time outside of class, checking our mailboxes and praying for packages, or playing fucking PINBALL, or getting quarters for the laundry, or watching movies, or just generally loitering around with our backpacks, being coeds. I never go in there. My roommate, Surprise, whom you guys didn’t get to meet because you left too early—that’s actually her name, by the way, because she was supposed to be a boy but came out a girl—checks my mail for me. In the picture I am squinting and doing that ugly thing with my jaw. I seem to be saying, “1993, what else you got?” Dad took that picture and must have developed the roll because the next week I got it in the mail with a note that said “First day memento, Love Dad.” It’s funny how a picture of me reminds me only of you.

I thought it was odd that he sent it to me, tried to imagine him putting it in an envelope and addressing it—looking up my address, carefully copying it down—and I couldn’t, at least not without feeling sad and sorry for him, the same way I’ve felt watching baggers at the supermarket handling eggs with great care. I guess it was that feeling that prompted me to call him to say thanks. Thanks, too, for the book of stamps he included with the photo. And it was when I asked to speak to you that I knew you were gone.

Anyway, I’ve never had a pen pal, but this seems as good a time as any to try it out. I’m good at remembering details and I have a lot of time to record them. Though “pen pal” suggests a back-and-forth that’s impossible here. Lucky me, then. Now I have unlimited space to talk about my favorite subject besides you: me!!!




Surprise asked me, “Is it okay if we don’t talk in the morning? Like not even ‘hey’ or ‘have a good day’?” Then she told me a story about how her dad used to drive her to school, and he’d have on talk radio, and he’d ask her little questions, and one day she sort of blew up, snapped off the radio, and told him that she wasn’t awake yet, and she just wanted it to be quiet. They drove in silence for the next two years, but she said she felt so guilt-ridden that they might as well have been talking. “It was so loud inside my head, you know?”

I know, I tell her, and leave it at that. I don’t say how silence seems to be a member of my family. I like Surprise too much to burden her. Or maybe even more than I like her, I want her to like me. In either case, I wish we slept in the same bed sometimes.

It’s late afternoon and I’m on my way to English, wondering if I should skip it, trying to remember how many I’ve skipped. I see the boy from my philosophy class coming toward me. I have an unbridled desire for him that wearies me and takes up a lot of my time. My face feels out of control. I concentrate on my shoes, the six-eye Doc Martens I bought with the money I’d saved babysitting the horrible Nolans, and remember my mother’s arched eyebrows when she saw them (“Those?”). I study the ground right before each shoe hits it.



I keep walking. He slows down a little as if to chat, and I move faster. I want to turn around so badly that walking feels like pushing through the heaviest revolving door in the world, but I keep going. I don’t trust myself around him. When I get to the humanities building, I stop.

This boy, this thing of beauty—I call him Tea Rose.

Dear Mom,

I go through Surprise’s stuff all the time but it’s so disappointing. Almost lurid in its boringness. She has one sexy pair of underwear that still has its tags on. There are cards and letters from her parents and aunts and stuff. In one drawer is just sheets of tissue paper, which she uses when she packs to go home. She wraps her nice sweaters and skirts in tissue. It smells faintly like her perfume, Love’s Baby Soft.

I think I found your diary too young. I wasn’t ready for it. I don’t remember much of what was inside but I mean I wasn’t ready for the fact that you had one. Knowing you had a secret life still haunts me. As a result, everyone’s secret life—all the things I can’t see, not because they are innately invisible but because they are deliberately hidden—consumes me.

Last time I flipped through your diary, scanning it like I was a metal detector, was a while ago. I remember, in particular, the way you never ended a sentence. That you seemed exclusively to use dashes and ellipses. I guess I have a natural aversion to endings too.


It’s Friday night. I have to write a paper on one of the following topics: the theory of forms, Cartesian dualism, the Zeitgeist, or Kant’s categorical imperative. What I want to write about instead is physicalized loneliness, my dead brother Simon, waiting as a form of punishment and/or prayer. Or some combination thereof.

Everyone is at the bars or off-campus parties and I want to be somewhere too. I get a Coke from the vending machine in my dorm. I was hoping to find boys with whiskey hanging around but there’s not even a trace of them, no beer can tabs or baseball caps in the kitchenette. I put the Coke in my coat pocket and leave the building. Outside is chilly and has the hormonal whiff of the weekend to come.

At the start of our first philosophy class, our professor asked us for some examples of philosophical ideas in everyday life. Fortune cookies, someone said. “To be or not to be,” another person offered (but couldn’t name the play it came from). Tea Rose raised his hand. “If a tree falls in the forest,” he said. I’d been thinking the exact same thing.

Overhead, the spindly tree branches look as though they are trying and failing to hold hands in the stiff breeze. I can’t decide if my mother is the tree or the forest or if I am one or the other. And she’s just the person who’s not there.

Dear Mom,

Last night I wandered around campus in your long coat with a half-empty Coke, looking for booze. I knew where a couple off-campus parties were, so I went to one. Surprise was there, excited. She just really likes college. Her eyes were a little drunk and she put her arm around my waist to “introduce me to people” but she was still mostly her tidy self. I broke away after a few minutes and found a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen. Most people were hovering around the keg. I poured whiskey into my half-empty Coke can and put the bottle back. What did Dad used to say? If you see the glass as half empty, just fill it? I was always puzzled by that whole scenario. Whether it’s half empty or half full, it’s still only half of whatever you might want it to be.

I wanted Tea Rose. I wanted his whereabouts. I thought for a second that he was at the party but it was some other tall boy. The disappointment of this was enough to make me want to leave, so I headed back toward campus, keeping my head down.

I always hear Simon when I’m alone at night. “What the fuck are you walking around by yourself for? Do you have the mace I gave you? How are you going to defend yourself, Agnes?” When did he first give me mace? Do you remember? I think it was the Christmas that I was eight. Ten years ago now. And he’s been gone for less than three—the three longest, shortest years.

I’m a slow sipper and the whiskey was doing its thing to warm me up. It’s midterm time and the library stays open until midnight or later. I always think about staying in the library after it closes, spending the night there, like those kids did at the Met in that book I loved. I want to do this with Tea Rose. I want to do so many things, inarticulable things. Not like “go hot air ballooning in the Alps” type of stuff but like “sleep in a library next to a boy.”

I have to write a philosophy paper. If you wrote me back, I’d just turn in your letter.


I get a B+ on my philosophy paper. There are red checkmarks and plus signs in the margins, a couple “!”s. The note at the end says, A fascinating essay, though gravely lacking in source material and proper citations. I’m eager to see what you could do with more research. There’s fifteen minutes left of class and I’m upset that Tea Rose isn’t here today. His paper is sitting on the corner of the professor’s desk along with the other absentees’. I’m thinking about how I can get it for him, deliver it later, when a tall blond girl raises her hand and says she lives in his dorm.

“I think he’s sick today,” she says, smiling sweetly. “I’ll bring it to him.” She looks like one of those women in commercials for feminine products. I picture her itchy and rash-ridden and try to calm down. I leave class to go to the bathroom and stare at my face for a while. I have no idea what I look like, even looking at myself. Sometimes I wished for the blankness the girls in magazines had, the nothing gaze, the empty eyes, as though they’d unlocked the meaning of life, and the meaning of life was meaningless, and there was nothing left to do. But my face always seemed vaguely worried, searching, my dark eyes somehow darker than they needed to be, my thick eyebrows an additional source of shadow, my longish hair tangled by nature and heavier than they made brushes for. It just doesn’t seem like a face, I think to myself, that could ever set anyone at ease. I decide against going back to class and head to work early instead.

Mr. Figgs, the dining hall director, has asked me several times whether I want to work “front of house,” serving food or replenishing the salad bar, which I hear are the more coveted positions. I’m happy washing dishes in the back. The time goes fast, and it’s rare that anyone tells me what to do or asks to give them a hand. I wear industrial-grade latex gloves up to my elbows and keep the water scorching. Today Terrence is mopping a pool of salad dressing off the floor. There is the overwhelming smell of Caesar. Surprise, who has no scholarship or work study, often asks me about the smells. “How gross is it back there? How bad is it on taco night?”

The thing I like about this work is how uneventful it is. It’s a spill here or a shortage there, but mostly it’s predictable in ways that other things can’t be. Like if a heavily manned large-scale kitchen could just be the context for every situation, we’d all know exactly what to do with ourselves. When I get back to my room after work, Surprise is there, folding laundry.

“Your dad called. You should call him back.”

“Did he leave a specific message?”

“Well, he said that he got something about Parents’ Weekend in the mail, some hotel rates or something, and wanted to talk to you about coming.”

“Oh.” I take a piece of Juicy Fruit from the pile of packs on my dresser.

Surprise is holding a very small sock. I can’t understand why it’s so small. “That sock is tiny,” I say.

“It stretches. It’s for working out. So did you not tell your parents or dad or whatever about Parents’ Weekend?”

Even knowing that the sock can stretch out does not help me come to terms with its size. “Can you put that on right now? I can’t believe that it fits a human foot.”

“Okay, Miss Change-the-Subject. Hope you don’t mind but I told your dad that they should definitely come up. We could do a lunch on Saturday or something, if you don’t have to work. By the way, you smell like…mayonnaise?”


Surprise steps out of her fluffy slipper and pulls the sock on. Incredibly, it fit.

“Why can’t they make all clothes like that? We’d have so much more room to work with.”

She shrugs, taking off the sock and finding its mate. “It’d probably be really expensive.”

I put a few books in my bag.

“Where are you going? Call your dad.”

Dear Mom,

So what I want to know is, is “leaving” a verb or a personality trait? Like, do you do it because you are it, or are you it because you do it?

I’ve had two Simon dreams this week. How about you? Do you even dream?

The other thing on my mind regarding word usage pertains to vanity. You call your dresser your “vanity.” And it has those big mirrors, one on your side and one on Dad’s, and then you have that big mirrored tray with all your perfume bottles on it. So I could sit on the bed and watch you get ready in three planes: real life, vertical mirror, horizontal mirror. Usually I just used the mirrors. I felt I could be more invisible if I looked at your reflection, rather than directly at you. I never wanted you to catch me looking, but you never seemed to mind or notice if I was there. Of course my favorite combination was the yellow dress with the red belt and red shoes, and then the cloud of Chanel.

We have the same crooked mouth,


There are these strawberry-flavored muffins, bright pink, at the coffee shop on campus. They taste like the marshmallows in cereal. There’s also something called coffee milk, which people here are obsessed with. It’s like chocolate milk but it’s flavored with coffee instead of chocolate. I pick one of those up along with a muffin, and I’m in line when I feel a change in the air and hear the tinny clatter of music issuing from somewhere very close to me.

“Hey. Nice dinner.” His voice is loud and deliberate, his headphones neon yellow, their cord rising out of the pocket of his olive-green barn jacket. I take him in entirely, his cheeks flushed with cold, his slightly rumpled hair, the torn canvas of his sneakers. To hide my panic and excitement, I try to concentrate on paying and probably look like I don’t know how to add up money.

“Do you want a bag for this?”

I shake my head and put the stuff in the pockets of my big coat. I stand there while Tea Rose pays for his small coffee.

“Don’t you work at the dining hall?”


“So can’t you get better food? Like, secret food?” He is still too loud. We move to the side.

“It doesn’t really work like that. Usually we eat before whatever meal we’re working, so I’m not very hungry, and afterward I don’t always like eating what I’ve been around for three hours.”

“Ah.” He puts his headphones around his neck. There is suddenly no sound between us. “Hey, do you know Nirvana?” He says it like we are at a party and he is our—mine and Nirvana’s—mutual friend.

“Um, yeah. Doesn’t everyone?”

He rolls his eyes. “I don’t mean like, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I mean their early stuff.”

How could he know I had an older brother once who knew everything there was to know about music? “You mean like ‘Bleach’?”

Tea Rose lights up. “Yeah, yes. Totally. That’s exactly what I was just listening to. It’s fucking brilliant. Do you want to sit somewhere?” He looks around for a table.

“I have to go, actually. I need to get some reading done. And call my dad. And do some laundry.” I don’t know why I’m doing this. What I want is to stay with him more than anything in the world.

“Wow. One excuse and two alternates. Impressive.”

I think if I kissed Tea Rose, I would definitely keep my eyes open. I’m convinced that if I loiter too long in his presence, I will reach out and start rubbing his face. It reminds me of the polished minerals I used to covet from the gift shop of the museum of natural history. Agate. Calcite.

“I’ll see you in class.”

He raises his cup a little, as if to toast. “Okay. That’s a big coat you’ve got there.”

“Thanks,” I say, before realizing he isn’t necessarily complimenting me. “I mean, it’s my mother’s.” Now I’m practically mumbling. “I like to be prepared. You have no idea the stuff I can keep in here.”

Tea Rose laughs, an easy sound. “Maybe we can get together and listen to Nirvana sometime. Or, you know, talk about coats.”

I don’t tell him that I don’t really care about music anymore. But I would listen to whatever he wanted. And then I am extra grateful for my coat, which feels like it’s actually keeping my heart, now spinning as wildly as a piñata after the first hit, inside my body.

*  *  *

At the start of Parents’ Weekend, I meet my dad at the student center and we hug each other, and I have to try very hard not to let loose the ball of unexpected tears in my throat. His beard tickles my neck and he smells like Pour Homme, the drugstore cologne he’s been wearing for a thousand years.

There is a breakfast set up for students with their parents, and I don’t have to work. We go to it, the stench of powdered eggs rubbing against our faces as we walk through the door. My dad puts a lot of food on his plate, and when he runs out of room, he puts it on my plate. Eggs, French toast, sausage links, bacon, a muffin, hash browns, fruit, and a few packages of saltines from near the silverware. The saltines are part of some final, desperate act. The last grabbable, edible thing.

We sit down at the end of a long table. At the other end, a group of girls sits with their parents. All of the girls seem to be wearing some combination of pink, green, and white, with scarves tied through their belt loops or in their hair. Their mothers are aged holograms of them, incandescent in their crisp white shirts, with their crisp white skin and frosted hair. Their fathers sit in pleated and plaid button-down shirts, silent and embarrassed. We listen along with them as their wives and daughters decide on the places they want to hit and do.

“So, okay, we’ll do the museum, then,” one of them is saying.

“Yes!” says another. “The museum!”

“We’ll do the museum, and then we’ll hit the mall, and then we can squeeze in a quick run—”

“Or tennis!”

“Ooh! Tennis! Yes. Let’s totally do tennis. And then…maybe Cactus Fred’s for margaritas?”

“Yes! Totally! We should definitely hit Cactus Fred’s!”

My father and I watch the same way we watch television at home. I turn to him after a while.


“Hmm?” He is hovering over his food, as if newly reminded of it.

“Should we do the museum? Or would you rather do Cactus Fred’s? Or we could, you know, do both, with a little fro-yo in between…”

My dad smiles, a bit of ground pepper between his front teeth. “What’s the museum like?”

I tear the tops off three packets of sugar at once and empty them into my coffee. “There’s a Mary Sargent collection, I think. And a few suits of armor.”

“Sounds pretty good.”

The coffee won’t get sweet. I stir it some more. “I’m kidding about wanting to go.”

“Oh. Well, whatever you want. Whatever you want to do.” He is staring at one of the mothers. He is thinking about my mother, because we are always thinking about my mother.

The girls and their parents disperse after some prolonged goodbyes and a few more rounds of schedule recitation, dumping their trays of egg-white omelets and fruit at the trash station and exiting through separate doors, linking arms with their mothers while their fathers trail behind.


  • "...[A] touching, delightful, and satisfying novel about motherhood."—Publishers Weekly (Best Books of 2017)
  • "MOTHEREST is a moving story of loss and loneliness and parenthood and love, in all their vast human multitudes. It's an intensely perceptive and honest novel about the sometimes-unbridgeable gap between parents and children. Kristen Iskandrian's narrator is an extraordinary character: a woman searching desperately for connection, an island trying to become a peninsula. You will want to yell at her, as I did, and you will want to cry with her, as I did, and you will be transfixed until the very last page."—Nathan Hill, New York Times bestselling author of The Nix
  • "One of the most unforgettable protagonists I've read in recent years - as if a Dickens heroine was reimagined by a literary girl gang made up of Deb Olin Unferth, Katherine Dunn and Lydia Davis."—Porochista Khakpour, author of The Last Illusion
  • "Kristen Iskandrian is an utterly thrilling voice, and MOTHEREST will slay you with its inventive, spiky, and heartrending investigation into the dark mysteries of family life - and the quest for a private identity within it. A smart, gorgeous, and singular debut."—Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me
  • "This is a book of wombs, physical and metaphorical, an exploration into the ways we make spaces to become ourselves - both divine and misguided - and what it means to be a daughter. Kristen Iskandrian's prose is both compulsively readable and structurally unique, investigating the mysteries of human feeling through a beautiful epistolary form."—Melissa Broder, author of So Sad Today
  • "I highly enjoyed MOTHEREST -- a powerful, moving, complex, wry, sensitive novel about crying, laughing, waiting, leaving, pain, loss, endurance, secrets, surprises, ambivalence, possession, parents, pregnancy, childbirth, college, home, and love."—Tao Lin, author of Taipei
  • "Kristen Iskandrian has done more than write a book: she's created a world. So particular and familiar is its setting (the '90s; college), so nuanced is its narrator (broken, whip-smart, wildly perceptive and yet frozen in her own fate), and so poignant is its writing (there are poems in these paragraphs!), you'll find yourself lingering in this world long after you've turned the last page. MOTHERESTis a fresh and devastating deep dive into womanhood, motherhood, teenagehood, and grief, and is an important reminder of the aches and wonders of being alive."—Molly Prentiss, author of Tuesday Nights in 1980
  • "Taut and tender, MOTHEREST one-ups the messy teenage page-turner, finding real human truths in its story of a vanished mother and a struggling daughter, a source for the sourceless longing of growing up."—Amelia Gray, author of Isadora
  • "[A] stellar first and honest...Agnes's voice charms with a subtle undercurrent of humor and sarcasm making this a delightful and satisfying reading experience. Iskandrian is a writer to watch."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
  • "MOTHEREST transforms from a smart...broody meditation on abandonment into an emotionally brimming story of new life and new responsibility. It becomes saturated with hope."—The Wall Street Journal
  • "[MOTHEREST forms] a tableau that is heartbreaking, hilarious, and poignant -- often at the same time. A powerfully perceptive story written with love, realism, and humor and that feels fresh despite the familiar terrain."—Kirkus (Starred Review)
  • "Agnes' voice, in her heartrending letters and her funny, sad, dead-true perceptions, propels Iskandrian's brilliant debut about life's continuously shifting, perplexing intimacies."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px 'Times New Roman'; color: #212121; -webkit-text-stroke: #212121}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Booklist

On Sale
Aug 1, 2017
Hachette Audio

Kristen Iskandrian

About the Author

Kristen Iskandrian’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Tin House, Zyzzyva, Crazyhorse, EPOCH, and Plougshares, among others. Her story “The Inheritors” was included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 as a Juror Favorite. She was a juror for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015 along with Tessa Hadley and Michael Parker. Born in Philadelphia, Kristen currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and two daughters.

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