Nature tells us that a mother can’t part with her children. Like a lioness with her cubs, a mother is supposed do anything and sacrifice anything to protect her kids. But what about a mother who feels out of her depth? A mother who believes that the only way she can protect her children is by abandoning them?
These are the themes Vanessa Diffenbaugh explored in her book club-friendly debut, The Language of Flowers, and they’re the same themes we see again in her new novel, We Never Asked for Wings. This time, we meet Letty, a woman who became a mother as a teenager and never really grew up—in fact, she regressed—as she handed responsibility for her children to her mother, a tactic that seemed to work until her mother and father left for their childhood home in Mexico. Letty is left with two children she barely knows, let alone knows how to mother.
The clearest character for much of the novel is Alex, Letty’s teenage son. He’s abandoned with his younger sister, Luna, and seemingly doomed to repeat his mother’s mistakes. He’s grown up in poverty with a brilliant scientific mind and no way to exercise the experiments he dreams up. He’s without a father, without resources, and when his grandfather leaves the country, he’s left without his only connection to the qualities he values in himself.
Initially, Letty’s methods for dealing with her situation and reconnecting with Alex are pretty abysmal. She leaves her children to their own devices. Her decisions don’t get better immediately, either, as she bonds with her children through bribery and bad choices. But Diffenbaugh doesn’t wait for us to process our shock at this behavior—she, and her protagonist, move on. We see everyone in this family striving to be better, and we root for them.
Diffenbaugh takes big political questions about child protective services, poverty and immigration and weaves them through the story of one multigenerational family. The question is, can Letty and her parents undo the damage they’ve spent a lifetime building, or are some mistakes too big to come back from?