Growing up, Kelly Corrigan relied on her dad’s unwavering enthusiasm but navigated an “adversarial but functional” way of being with her mother, who “looked at motherhood less as a joy to be relished than as a job to be done, serious work with serious repercussions.” In her newest memoir, Glitter and Glue, Corrigan weaves together the complicated story of their relationship with her 1992 experience as the nanny of a motherless family in Australia. There, thousands of miles away from home, she learned firsthand the challenges of raising children, which led to a newfound compassion for her own mother. Released in 2014, Corrigan’s bestselling third memoir, released in paperback this month, takes its name from a quip by the author’s mother: “Your father’s the glitter, but I’m the glue.”
Fresh out of college in 1992, Corrigan ran out of money while backpacking in Australia but found a job as a nanny for John Tanner, a widower with two young children: seven-year-old Milly and five-year-old Martin. As Corrigan steps into the role of caring for them, she can’t help but think about their mother, who died of cancer. After receiving a letter from her own mom, which ends with advice to lock her bedroom door at night lest the grieving father sneak in uninvited, Corrigan finds herself on the other side of the world but just as frustrated as if she and her mother were still living in the same house.
In a conversation with Milly, who’s envious that Corrigan’s mom is still alive, Corrigan wants to tell the little girl that mothers aren’t as great as they might seem. She thinks but doesn’t say that the living mother-daughter relationship is a never-ending battle between adaptation and acceptance: “The only mothers who never embarrass, harass, dismiss, discount, deceive, distort, neglect, baffle, appall, inhibit, incite, insult, or age poorly are dead mothers, perfectly contained in photographs, pressed into two dimensions like a golden autumn leaf.”
The beauty and gravity of Glitter and Glue lie in Corrigan’s shift in perception and behavior toward her mother. The dual narratives alternate between tales of Corrigan’s stint in Australia and her life twenty years later, as a working mother of two daughters in San Francisco. In the more contemporary passages, she struggles with cancer herself and comes to rely on her mother’s steadfast presence.
Corrigan has mined her family life in two earlier memoirs, The Middle Place, which paid homage to her father; and Lift, about being a mother to her two daughters. A frequent contributor to O: The Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping, Corrigan writes deftly, with candor, wit, and tenderness about her family. Their joys and pains, their quotidian successes and tragedies, are tied to her profound investment in their lives, and vice versa. Following twenty years of resentful, tumultuous interactions with her mother, Corrigan’s emotional reckoning as she raises children and grapples with her own mortality results in a change of heart. Finally, after years of conflict, she comes to love and appreciate the stability of her mother.
Sarah Norris holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has reviewed books for The Daily Beast, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice, among other publications. She lives in Nashville.