With her two healthy children, tenure-track professor husband, and idyllic farmhouse nestled amid the boundless nature of Vermont, Alma’s life is what many would consider nearly perfect. The protagonist in Makenna Goodman’s ‘The Shame‘ spends her days tapping the maples that line her property for fresh syrup, and dreaming up elaborate bedtime stories for her kids. Alma, however, longs for the life of a novelist—the life her mother could never quite achieve and the one she had to put on hold to care for her young children.
The reader watches—or more listens—as Alma details the suffocating rhythm and repetition of her life on the homestead—tension building as she begins writing in secret during stolen moments. Searching for a muse to model her protagonist after, she stumbles upon the social media account of Celeste: a Brooklyn-based ceramicist that wears billowy collared shirts and travels to Bali—“a privileged woman—but a ‘liberated’ one.” Alma neurotically checks Celeste’s social media page for updates, memorizing the minute details of her life right down to the fringed fob she keeps on her keys. Eventually, she jumps in her car in hot pursuit of the fantasy that Celeste represents—leaving her family and a lucrative, marketing-based writing deal dangling.
For a book just shy of 150 pages, Goodman paints a thematically-rich portrait of the inner desires, insecurities, and obsessions that we all sometimes feel, but can be hard to admit—with many layers to ponder long after you close the cover. Below, we’ve gathered the motifs that most resonated with us.
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Image vs. reality
With the lingering influence of social media in our society, there’s the ever-present fear of not presenting a curated image to the world. We see this manifest clearly within Celeste, but it also comes to light during the early dinner party scene: Alma spends weeks planning her outfit and reading countless articles in order to appear as an enchanting intellectual who deserves a seat at the table. Strangely, she doesn’t acknowledge that she is, in fact, smart and artistic, with her talents for painting, writing, and reading. Despite the beautiful aspects of her life, Alma reflects on “the stuckness [she] felt from adhering to a rigidly cultivated life that no one could see,” if an interesting existence really matters if no one else can witness it. She reads a book once a week—and while her husband suggests borrowing books from the university library, she insists on buying them so they can stack up in her house as proof she has read them—concerned with visual representation for others and herself. Later on, she creates an elaborate multi-course dinner for her family with the intention to share it on social media. Her husband sings her praises and her son asks for thirds, but the photos were grainy and Alma remained dissatisfied: “But there was a part of me that was left unattended, a part that wanted to share the moment, to present it to someone else and have the person respond that I always got it right.”
Loneliness vs. community
In exploring this next theme, we delve back into the university dinner scene. Alma’s preoccupation to fit in cements her position as an outsider in her mind. Even when she’s leading the conversation, she suddenly stops with an “are they laughing with me or at me” thought, feeling alone even in a group of people that her intellectual heart hopes to identify with. Part of the reason she feels so separate is that she’s a stay-at-home mother isolated from other adults and the connection she craves with them. This need is likely what drove her to social media, fostering a semi-false, one-sided intimacy with Celeste as she hungers to see how she looks reaching up into her pantry for honey—one evening, she even copies the salad Celeste is making to feel closer to her. Most interestingly, we see this theme manifest through Alma’s desire to write, to have a means of depicting her life as she wants it to appear and to be a part of a legacy of female writers—a tangible way to build connection with others, despite writing being a solitary activity. “I became filled with a sensation of limitless possibility and of the potential for community. Because if I finished my story, maybe someone would read it.”
Living for yourself vs. others
Of course, this is a common sentiment among many parents, especially now amid the coronavirus pandemic, as children often take priority over adult endeavors. Alma feels this on an exacerbated scale with her home in a rural community and her husband gone all day with his job, leaving only her to cut the crusts off sandwiches and contend with glitter glue, nudging aside her own needs and aspirations. While we see this in an obvious way through both female characters’ concern over cultivating a curated social media, we watch as this notion is challenged when Alma receives a job offer to write a children’s book promoting a toy company. It’s a $40,000 project and a way to get her name out, but it’s not her story—it’s not the art that she is compelled to make in her soul. The offer contract sits unsigned on her desk to the chagrin of her husband, who encourages her to take the project for the generous compensation. The moment Alma challenges him is the beginning of her prioritizing her dream—or at least, her new dream of physically existing in Celeste’s orbit. With her passions shifted to Celeste, Alma is still living her life for another as she drifts further away from her writing.
Sustainability vs. consumerism
Alma’s strained relationship between sustainability and consumerism often ebbs and flows beneath the surface of the novel. She lives off the land and sources high-quality secondhand goods to furnish her home, but throughout the book, we see Alma wander into numerous shops and boutiques in search of joy and validation. One instance, she’s accused of shoplifting by the sales clerk and attributes it to her worn-out backpack. This builds into a series of store visits near the end of the book, where she continues to chase consumerism to fill a void to prove she has the resources to buy these goods, despite her advocacy for sustainable living. This theme resonates deeply in today’s society—where social media is peppered with minimalist-chic influencers pushing an eco-friendly lifestyle, but never acknowledging the money it takes to purchase organic linen clothing or a $150 bamboo tupperware, or how encouraging the purchase of any new good is contributing to capitalism, not sustainability—always inevitably circling back to public image.
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What are your secret desires, insecurities, and obsessions? Share them with us and we’ll publish them anonymously (or not, if you prefer) in an upcoming Boston.com article.