Books: Matters of Life and Death

Jayne Anne Phillips' MotherKind tells a moving tale of birth and illness without easy ironies or pathos

Kate Tateman, 31, a poet and some-time academic, discovers she is pregnant with her first child at about the same time she learns that her mother, approaching 60, has been told she has inoperable lung cancer. This juxtaposition of a birth and a death foretold offers some fairly obvious ironies and occasions for pathos, almost all of which Jayne Anne Phillips avoids in her third novel, MotherKind (Knopf; 291 pages; $24). Instead of ruminating on the metaphysical significance of her premise and the story that springs from it, Phillips concentrates on the day-to-day details of ordinary existence suddenly afflicted with extraordinary...

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