At first glance, though The Confession is seemingly a straightforward missing-person mystery, it turns out to be a thought-provoking exploration of motherhood and female identity. Burton’s numerous female characters all choose a different path when it comes to motherhood, although the women who decide to remain childless are never condemned for their choices.
Jessie Burton’s third novel has a simple premise: 35-year-old Rose Simmons tries to find her mother, who abandoned her as a baby, by befriending her ex-lover, famed novelist Constance Holden. The dual narrative switches between Rose’s mother, Elise, developing her relationship with Connie in the 80s, and Rose navigating her own relationship in the present day, whilst also attempting to locate her mother.
However, Burton moves beyond the typical mystery genre, mainly exploring one of the major themes of the novel: motherhood. Rose’s main goal is to find her absentee mother, thus the definition of motherhood is placed under scrutiny throughout, with multiple characters offering different examples.
Burton offers various options for the women in the novel, whether that be abortion, single motherhood, or never having children at all. However, she never criticises any of the choices these women make about their bodies. The character who aborts her baby chooses to do so because she knows she is not ready to care for her own child, but still mourns the loss of her baby. Similarly, Rose’s best friend Kelly, happily married, with one child and another on the way, loves her children but also struggles to deal with the constant stress and hectic lifestyle children bring.
Burton also touches upon the feelings of aimlessness and lack of direction that many of the characters feel. Whilst The Confession is undoubtedly a feminist novel, she is not afraid to depict her female characters as flawed or uncertain about their lives. Both Rose and Elise have no idea what they want to do in life. The dual narrative structure shows the parallels between them; they both are relatively content to allow their partners to dictate their lives, but eventually realise this arrangement does not work. They become resentful of their partners and want to explore their own dreams.
Whilst Elise is depicted as a more passive character, content to follow Connie’s dreams and ambitions for the majority of the novel, Rose’s situation is different. She allows her boyfriend, Joe, to concentrate on his food truck dream, but is clearly annoyed that his desires seem to take precedence over hers. She decides to try and “arrive at a sense of solidity” and form her own identity, independent of her boyfriend. Rose achieves a sense of agency that her mother was never able to do.
Overall, The Confession examines both motherhood and purposelessness in a nuanced and fascinating way, offering a compassionate examination of female identity. So, if you enjoy a missing-person mystery, but also want an authentic examination of the choices available to women regarding motherhood, pick up a copy.
Words by Emily Nutbean
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