No Relation by Paula Carter
Black Lawrence Press, 2017; 138 pp
Reviewed by Elizabeth Martin
What does it mean to be apart of a blended family? What happens to those relationships when that blended family breaks apart? And can we really remember the past with any accuracy? These are just some of the big questions Paula Carter’s memoir No Relation dares to ask as she examines what it means to care for and love children who are not your own, and then what it means to care for your heart when those children are not longer in your life. She comes to no easy answers here, as there aren’t any to be had. Instead, Carter tackles her past with care and compassion to showcase the messiness at the core of all families.
The memoir is told as a series of flash essays, most of which examine single moments in time. The first half of the book offers glimpses into Paula’s life with her partner James and his two boys. There are the times one might expect—the boys being sweet and a bit sassy, awkward discipline sessions, jealousy, uncertainty—but there are also unexpected moments of connection, such as when James’ ex-wife, Lori, loses her husband. At the funeral, she tells Paula she needs help with the boys. Paula isn’t the “wicked step-mother” here—a myth she also explores in the book—but instead a woman supporting another woman through adversity because of their mutual love for two children.
Carter focuses on being both concise and precise with the moments she presents—writing in a simple, unadorned style that forces attention in on each slice of time. She’s careful to not exaggerate or force a narrative on the essays. At times it felt like reading a puzzle. And as each piece clicked together with its neighbor, a charged picture of the complexities of love and loss builds up. There’s no nostalgia or cynicism here; Carter goes to great length to avoid both. The bad and good about herself, her relationship, and her care for children who are not her own are all presented with equal frankness, equal care.