“I want to make it clear that the book is fiction,” Natalie Wexler states at the beginning of our interview. Well, yes, but like all those Law & Order episodes that are “ripped from the headlines,” Wexler’s very funny novel is loosely based on her experience at Washington D.C.‘s elite Sidwell Friends. Any parent who has ever volunteered at a private school will connect with the happenings in Wexler’s book, The Mother Daughter Show. You know the drill: that initial spirit of cooperation soon deteriorates into a battle of egos. Tempers flare, friendships are strained, and the fallout threatens to spill over onto the children. The fictional musical, unlike the real one, ends in disaster, but friends forgive and forget, and the students enjoy the sometimes unplanned entertainment. Wexler, however, had more on her mind than just poking fun at private school parents; she wanted to explore mother-daughter relationships. On that score she succeeds admirably, portraying the generational conflicts that are inevitable yet surmountable with the right effort.
Sidwell Friends boasts many famous alumni and Sasha and Malia Obama now attend the school. Wexler tweaks the presidential family in her book, making President Miyama the first Asian president and giving him one daughter, Marina, who attends the fictional Barton Friends. “There is a fictional first family in the book but really not the Obamas any more than the other characters are anyone real,” said Wexler. “What I really wanted to capture was the excitement of the school having the president’s daughter go there and everyone hoping that maybe the president and the first lady would show up at some school function, which they never did, certainly not the year I was there.”
Wexler’s son and daughter graduated from Sidwell Friends. “I had heard about this mother-daughter show before my daughter’s senior year and I knew that in some years, maybe most years, there were problems that arose, conflicts between the mothers,” she said. Although Wexler was wary about assuming a leadership role with the musical revue, she also had a hard time saying no and found herself not only on the show’s committee, but also writing some of the songs. “I could tell pretty quickly after I got involved that there were going to be some problems,” she said. “Then I realized that maybe this could be an inspiration for a comic novel. So I started writing it while we were still planning the show.”
Once The Mother-Daughter Show was published, opinion among the Sidwell Friends population was divided, particularly after the annual show was discontinued. “Some people gave me the credit or blame for that, depending on their point of view,” said Wexler. “But the school administration assured me that the decision had nothing to do with my book and I believe them.” Other factors may have helped to do away with the school’s 60-year tradition for putting on the show. There are now more women working outside the home, giving those parents less time to devote to writing and rehearsing the musical. “The show started out as very modest, maybe someone would get up and sing a song, and every year it got more elaborate,” with a professional choreographer and hours of rehearsal, said Wexler. “Sidwell is a Quaker school and one of its values is simplicity and [the show] had become the antithesis of simplicity.”
Some parents felt that Wexler’s characters were “thinly veiled versions of real people,” something she denies. Wexler said there are pieces of her in each of the three main characters: Amanda, a lawyer who once clerked for a judge and is now a stay at home mom; Susan, Amanda’s best friend and a very successful career woman; and, Barbara, the quintessential school volunteer who tries to maintain peace among the women.
Wexler, a lawyer, once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White but after joining a law firm found that, like Amanda, she didn’t enjoy litigation. “I’ve always been pretty averse to conflict, so this was probably not a good fit,” she said. “Really I was totally miserable.” With a master’s degree in history, Wexler found her calling working as a legal historian. She also penned a historical novel, A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court. Like Amanda, she found that writing song lyrics for the mother-daughter show was an exhilarating creative outlet. Like Susan, Wexler said she sometimes felt the urge to exert control over the show planning process. And like Barbara, Wexler often found herself heading up committees at her children’s school.
While the musical remains the book’s main focus, much of the action occurs between mothers and daughters outside the school. Wexler displays a talent for creating believable dialogue between mothers and teenage daughters as well as daughters and aging mothers. Amanda’s daughter, Kate, is prone to one-word answers and Amanda worries about that lack of communication. Susan’s daughter, Allie, is battling an eating disorder, and Susan’s 82 year-old mother, may know why. Barbara’s daughter Grace is threatening to ditch college to run away with an Australian musician, while Barbara’s mother falls further into dementia.
“I saw this book as a way to write about mother-daughter relationships which are often so fraught [with conflict],” Wexler said. “Each mother has her own mother to contend with and there are problems in those relationships, too. I hope there is something universal in that.”
The Mother Daughter Show