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The Need


The Need

French priest Gaspard Mermillod wrote in the 19th century that “[a] mother is she who can take the place of all others but whose place no one else can take.” This idea --- the irreplaceability of a mother and her central and essential role in the life of a child --- has led in the contemporary world to joys balanced with frustrations, and both comfort and stress, as women often are asked to do more and be more in their professional lives while still taking on the bulk of the parenting.

There is no shortage of fiction that seeks to explore this fraught balance and the realities of motherhood. THE NEED by Helen Phillips is in good company and holds its own, giving readers a dark, strange and original look at the perils of motherhood and the heaviness of maternal love.

"THE NEED is a fantastic novel. It is sharp and smart, real and impossible, wise, weird, and full of important and uncomfortable truths."

Molly is a working archaeologist, wife to David, and the mother of two children: four-year-old Viv and one-year-old Ben. Although she has help in the form of an excellent and loving babysitter named Erika for when she is at work, David travels a lot, and Molly does most of the day-to-day care of the children. She is often exhausted, mentally and physically, and lately has been concerned about some recent discoveries at work. In the dig site she is working on, among fossilized plants, Molly has unearthed an odd candy tin and a bizarre toy soldier along with a handful of other inexplicable finds.

But the most interesting discovery by far has been a 19th-century printed Bible in which God is always gendered as female instead of male. It is this Bible that has so upset and fascinated people in her community, sparking an event that changes everything for Molly. The archaeological pit is also a kind of rift in reality, opening up passage between parallel worlds. An act of violence there brings Moll to Molly, and the two women, almost the same person, now share just two children between them. Moll, grieving and angry, demands that Molly share Viv and Ben with her. In the long week that David is gone, Moll forces herself into Molly’s life until the distinction between them blurs, and the possibility of the same violence that ruined Moll’s life threatens Molly’s as well.

Phillips brings together Molly and Moll in such an arresting, terrifying and finely crafted manner. The first chapters of the novel swing between a terrible home invasion that just might be all in Molly’s mind as she struggles against the pressures of work and motherhood. Phillips never lets Molly (or readers) become totally confident in Moll’s existence even as Moll takes on aspects of Molly’s life, most particularly sharing in the care of Viv and Ben. Molly spies on Moll, her exact physical doppelganger, as she mothers the two kids, but Phillips asks that readers entertain the possibility that Molly is really observing herself and her own life.

This book is imaginative and beautifully written, but really quite scary as well. Despite its otherworldly ideas and speculative concepts, it is rooted in the real difficulties of mothering, even in the most loving and supportive of situations. Phillips perfectly captures the various elements of daily life with small children: the tasks, tone and content of conversations, the physical weariness and the emotional strain. As Moll and Molly swap places and observe each other in turn, these details come into sharp relief for Molly and for readers. And Mermillod’s accepted maxim is called into question in uncomfortable and astounding ways.

THE NEED is a fantastic novel. It is sharp and smart, real and impossible, wise, weird, and full of important and uncomfortable truths.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 12, 2019

The Need
by Helen Phillips

  • Publication Date: July 7, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982113170
  • ISBN-13: 9781982113179