Book Review: Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness

March 1, 2021

In her debut collection of personal essays, Spilt Milk, out today from McSweeney’s Books, Courtney Zoffness examines her childhood through the prism of her motherhood. Fears, loves, doubts, and desires garner fuller significance through highly self-aware, highly intricate modes of retrospection and introspection. With heart and skill, Zoffness is also able to extend the topic of conversation well beyond the domestic, framing her own daily struggles with global concerns. Even amidst worldwide instability, each essay steadfastly relies upon a kind of paradoxical bedrock of uncertainty, honesty, and vulnerability. Zoffness writes, “So I do what I often do when unsure of something. I read.” These ten essays compel the reader to do the same.

Zoffness launches the reader into each essay with an impetus that cannot be denied. In the first, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” readers meet the author’s five-year-old Oliver in the grip of a panic attack. While gently coaxing her son to school, Zoffness says, “Mommy…would never suggest you do something that’s a bad idea,” but then “wonder[s] if it’s true.” Flashing backward and forward, Zoffness recalls the dire warnings of her childhood that sparked lifelong issues with anxiety: housebreakers and kidnappers, poisoned candy and electrical storms. Zoffness then begins to wonder about “parent-child transfer,” how her anxiety has possibly become her child’s anxiety. She finds the scientific research “inscrutable,” and her therapist concurs. The answers aren’t forthcoming, but the questions are persistent.

The reader’s conception of motherhood expands once again in the third essay, “Holy Body.” Here, Zoffness investigates the intersection of faith and motherhood via her relationship with a childhood friend. The aptly named Carrie runs a mikveh center and is currently serving as a gestational surrogate. Zoffness visits the center at Carrie’s urging for ritual bathing, a process that Zoffness must think of in more secular terms in order to complete. Though the two women first met as young girls at “a Jewish sleepaway camp in the Berkshires,” their lives, and goals, have clearly diverged. Once reconnected as adults, Zoffness is fascinated by Carrie’s commitment to her faith, to her willingness to gladly sacrifice her bodily autonomy in order to gestate a baby for another Jewish family. The use of second person, the dual nature of the narrative “you,” requires readers to join Zoffness on her quest to better understand the beauty and sanctity of motherhood—even at its very limits.

In essays such as “It May All End in Aleppo” and “Boy in Blue,” Zoffness further contextualizes her examination of childhood and motherhood (and the many types of faith inherent within both) by widening her scope to include the international political arena. In “Aleppo,” Zoffness seeks to empathize with the plight of Aleppan Jews, seeks to place herself, if only metaphorically, in their beautiful, ruined city: “In my Aleppo, the coffee was bitter, the figs supple, and the evergreens open-crowned.” She is horrified by the refugee crisis, by images of needless death. As a mother, Zoffness can’t help but think of her own children: “I have a five-year-old too.” “Boy in Blue” likewise features her own children, but within the context of Black Lives Matter. Her youngest, who role-plays as a police officer, “unarrests” his mother in the mornings, and begs to visit the precinct station next door. In order to better guide her son, Zoffness must delve into the complex history of racial inequality and police brutality. Her discoveries jolt both writer and reader into deeper consideration of these ongoing worldwide crises.

In “Ultra Sound,” the collection’s seventh essay, Zoffness admits: “I wrote—I write—because I prize language’s surprises and limitations, and because in college I connected to books more than I did to friends.” Throughout the collection, Zoffness appeals to similar types of transparency: the role of the writer with reference to the reader and vice versa. Zoffness forgoes the formalities and allows the reader to glimpse her process, a style that fosters empathy, connection, rapport. Perhaps the greatest strength of Spilt Milk is the way Zoffness approaches the very form itself—the essay as art-in-progress, as an open line of communication between writer and reader. In the same essay, Zoffness writes about her mother, who gave up a career in music: “I wanted her to show me how art opens the artist, that exposure is a worthy endeavor,” a sentiment expressed often in these ten remarkable essays, directly and indirectly. In Spilt Milk, Courtney Zoffness, with compassionate clarity, exposes herself—her worst fears, her best hopes—to expose her art.

Publisher: McSweeney’s Books

Publication Date: March 2nd, 2021

Reviewed by Courtney Harler


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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