Poet and academic Kate Tateman is happily single until she goes for inoculations before heading to India to teach. She falls in love with Matt, the doctor who administers the shots, and quickly the heroine of Phillips's linguistically beautiful new novel finds herself catapulted into the sandwich generation: She and Matt have a baby (before his divorce is final), and Kate's terminally ill mother, Katherine, comes to live with them. Kate also has to cope with Sam and Jonah, Matt's two unruly little boys.
Best known for her novels (Machine Dreams and Shelter), Phillips's early experience as a poet is apparent throughout MotherKind, but especially so in this description of Kate's sensations as she looks around at her backyard wedding celebration: "Music, running trills of sound. Slow pointillist colors. White balloons drifting in bunches, nodding over their tethers."
Phillips allows readers to become privy to Kate's thoughts and feelings as she assumes her new roles. Although Matt seems to have only a supporting role—a small flaw in this deeply felt story—the author's moving yet unidealized portrayal of Kate bonding with her baby as Katherine slips away from life is rendered with an affecting delicacy. (Knopf, $24)