September 2023

Omega Farm

By Martha McPhee
Novelist Martha McPhee’s debut memoir details her work on herself and a family farm, candidly disclosing the frustrations and satisfactions of these worthy but all-consuming projects.
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With five novels to her credit, Martha McPhee has well-established credentials as a storyteller. In her memoir, Omega Farm, she drops the veil of invention to share an intensely personal tale of her attempt to reclaim a troubled past amid a ceaselessly demanding present.

In mid-March 2020, McPhee, her husband and fellow writer, Mark, and their children Livia and Jasper, decamped from their New York City apartment to the eponymous farm—a 45-acre property about 10 miles outside her birthplace of Princeton, New Jersey—to escape the COVID-19 pandemic and help provide care for her mother, well-known photographer Pryde Brown, whose decade-long dementia was deepening. McPhee, the youngest of four children of Brown and famed New Yorker writer John McPhee, had spent most of her childhood at the farm after her parents divorced when she was four and her mother began a romantic relationship with Dan Sullivan, the farm’s owner, that lasted until his death in 1994.

McPhee’s memoir takes stories of growing up amid the “big sprawling chaotic mess” of Omega Farm with her three sisters, Sullivan’s five children and a 10th child produced from the Sullivan-Brown union, and seamlessly connects them to reflections on how the echoes of those experiences complicate her struggles with the demands of caregiving and her own present-day familial relationships. Sullivan, an unlicensed Gestalt therapist, is “something of a con man, [a] serial philanderer,” and a charismatic, if sometimes disordered figure. It soon becomes clear that Sullivan’s repeated sexual abuse of his stepdaughters lies at the core of her difficulty coming to terms with her memories.

If all this weren’t enough, urbanite McPhee is called upon to shoulder the burden of superintending a haphazardly cared-for property that includes a 35-acre forest. While confronting an unruly strand of bamboo and a failed septic system, she learns that Omega Farm’s population of ash trees has been infested with a devastating pest: the emerald ash borer. Soon, she devotes herself to the task of forest preservation, dealing with a land steward, unscrupulous loggers and the management hunter she hires to help suppress the ravenous deer population. Throughout, McPhee candidly discloses the frustrations and satisfactions of this worthy but all-consuming project.

McPhee is an efficient, graceful writer, who makes no effort to spare her own flaws even as she searches for the roots of her mature turmoil in the shortcomings of adults who failed in the fundamental task of protecting her younger self. In barely three years since its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic already has produced a small shelf of impressive memoirs. Martha McPhee’s Omega Farm easily earns itself a place in that collection.

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Omega Farm

Omega Farm

By Martha McPhee
ISBN 9781982197995

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