Sing Out, Louise!*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what I’ll call ‘stage parents.’ These are parents who push their children to excel, far beyond the usual rules about getting schoolwork done, or the usual supports, such as going to games or paying for music lessons. Some parents do this because they honestly believe it’s a good way of ensuring that their child succeeds. They see it as their way of providing for their child. Others arguably do it because it allows them to succeed vicariously. There are other reasons, too.

You see such parents at sporting events, recitals and music competitions, and beauty pageants. They’re also in crime fiction. That makes sense, too, if you think about it. That sort of pressure adds a dimension of conflict and tension to a fictional relationship. It can also make an effective motive for murder.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to Gideon Davies. He’s got rare musical talent, and at twenty-eight, has become a world-class violinist. One day, he discovers to his horror that he can’t play. Desperate to find out what’s blocking his playing, he visits a psychotherapist. In the meantime, Davies’ mother, Eugenie, goes out to dinner one night. She leaves the restaurant and is struck in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate, and find that this was no accident. Both this death and Davies’ struggles are related to a twenty-year-old tragedy. And woven through the story is Davies’ own history as a child who was raised by ‘stage parents,’ who saw his musical talent and pushed him.

James Ellroy’s historical novel, L.A. Confidential, introduces readers to Preston Exley, who is a revered member of the LAPD. His fondest dream is for his son Edmund ‘Ed’ to rise to the top of the ranks, and he pushes, prods, and does whatever he can to make sure that Ed moves on in his career. This pressure is very difficult for Ed, as you can imagine. Still, he wants to please his father. On Christmas Day, 1951, seven civilians are brutally attacked by members of the police force. At first, nothing’s done about it. Then, a groundswell of protests forces the department to do an internal investigation. Ed Exley is caught up in that event, and in another event two years later. This time, it’s a shooting at an all-night diner called the Nite Owl. The two incidents are related, and we gradually learn what links them as the investigation plays out. Throughout the novel, we see how profoundly Ed Exley has been affected by his father’s ‘stage parenting.’

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide introduces readers to Tristan Pembroke. She’s a wealthy and successful beauty pageant coach and judge who’s helped more than one young girl to win. When she’s murdered at a charity art auction, there are several possible suspects, since she’s made quite a number of enemies. One of those suspects is Sara Taylor, a local artist. Sara’s mother-in-law, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor, knows that Sara’s innocent, and decides to clear her name. As the novel goes on, we learn some things about the beauty pageant circuit, what it takes to win, and how many beauty pageant ‘stage mothers’ there are.  Here’s what one of them, Colleen Bannister, says about pageants:


‘‘…you know that Pansy [Colleen’s daughter] and I are not competing for fun, we’re competing to win. Nothing makes that girl happier than having one of those ten-story crowns on her head, all glitzy and shiny, and everyone standing up and cheering themselves hoarse.’’


It’s very interesting to see how quick Colleen is to say that the pageant circuit is what Pansy wants. The reality is, of course, that Colleen wants it at least as much.

Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me takes readers into the world of competitive gymnastics. Katie and Erick Knox are the proud parents of fifteen-year-old Devon, a truly gifted gymnast. When Coach Teddy Belfour sees her in action, he makes her parents an offer:


‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up] and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’


He means it, too, and Devon’s parents are more than willing to do that. Before long, Devon’s well on the way to national, even Olympic, fame. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (or was it an accident?) changes everything. Besides the mystery surrounding the death, Abbott also takes a close look at the families behind competitive athletes. It’s a stark case of ‘stage parents’ who will do whatever it takes to make sure their children are winners.

Of course, not all parents of gifted children are ‘stage parents.’ Take Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, for instance. She’s a retired academic and political scientist. She and her attorney husband, Zack, are also the parents of Taylor, a gifted artist. The Shreves have always known about Taylor’s very special and unusual talent. But they’re determined that she’ll have as normal a childhood as possible. In several story arcs that run through this series (and, actually, in a major plot thread of The Gifted), they’re careful about what they allow her to do. For them, it’s a question of balancing support for her talent with support for the rest of her development.

But not all parents do that. And when parents push their children too hard, the result can be tragedy. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Clothes in Books? You’ll find it a rich resource of fine reviews and discussion about clothes, popular culture, fiction, and what it all means about us.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jule Shyne and Stephen Sondheim’s May We Entertain You?


Filed under Elizabeth George, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, James Ellroy, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams

20 responses to “Sing Out, Louise!*

  1. I could write a book about stage parents, Margot, believe me! What’s fun is that I’m going to be directing GYPSY at my high school this winter! It’s one of the best musicals of all time and one of my favorites!

    • Oh, how wonderful that you’ll be directing Gypsy, Brad! It is an excellent musical, isn’t it? And such a telling picture of stage mother… And if you ever do write about stage parents, I want to read it!

  2. In Trophy Child by Paula Daly there was an example of the ‘stage mum’ which illustrated all the worst types of behaviours that these parents display

    • I’m awfully glad you mentioned that one, Cleo. It’s on my list, but I’ve not (yet) read it. I’m very glad you filled in the gap, as it’s a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post.

  3. What an interesting topic! Even in general teaching I ran into some parental behaviors that…well, I just tried to be understanding lol. I hadn’t thought about how those might play into a mystery- thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Anne. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I know what you mean about students’ parents. I’ve had some…er…interesting experiences, too. You have a well-taken point that it’s helpful to try to understand parents’ points of view…

  4. Ha! Perfect timing since I’m about halfway through Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me right now – getting shivers at what parents will make their children do, or even allow them to do, in the name of sport. I’ve got another one coming up called Trophy Son by Douglas Brunt, which I know almost nothing about except that it’s set in the world of competitive tennis, but the title suggests parents may play a role in it too…

    • Oh, that does sound like another solid example of the ‘stage parent,’ FictionFan. My guess is that you’re probably right, and that parental competitiveness will be a part of the story. As to You Will Know Me, I’m glad you’re getting drawn into that story. It is a pretty chilling look at ‘stage parents,’ isn’t it? I’ll be interested in what you think of it when you’ve finished it.

  5. Ah, yes, I’ve sat next to some of those stage parents and listened to them – a fascinating sub-species! The only additional example I can think of is one I read recently: The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan – about a musical prodigy with a bit of a shady past, and what her parents are prepared to do to help her succeed.

    • That one sounds interesting, Marina Sofia. And it’s a good example of how ‘stage parents’ can be. I’m glad you mentioned it. I know what you mean, too, about listening to the way ‘stage parents’ talk, and seeing how they act. Fascinating, indeed!

  6. I think as the world has become a place where fewer and fewer are able to grabl the brass ring, parents are put into a bind. Having just read HILLBILLY ELEGY, you can see that having grandparents who pushed him led to his success. Hard to get it right, isn’t it?

    • It really is, Patti. And you have a well-taken point about the pressure on parents. It’s harder to make it, so parents feel even more pressured to push their children.

  7. PS Is the actual line from GYPSY?

  8. Thanks for the mention, Margot, and for this topic. Stage parents have always sort of fascinated me and they make for great elements in crime fiction. 🙂

    • It’s always a pleasure to mention your work, Elizabeth. And you’re right about ‘stage parents.’ They can add a compelling element to a crime novel. 🙂

  9. I’m glad Brad and you both reminded us of Gypsy – one of the great musicals, I saw a fabulous production in London last year. And my other thought was the book Cleo mentioned – The Trophy Child by Paula Daly, a marvellous look at a pushy mother.
    And of course – thanks for the shoutout! Honoured to have inspired another great Margot post.

    • Oh, I’m the one who should thank you, Moira. I always really appreciate the inspiration I get from you and your blog. Lucky you to have seen a good production of Gypsy; isn’t it a fabulous show? And what a classic case of the ‘stage parent!’

  10. kathyd

    Oh, gosh, stage parents. I know a few. My grandmother was one, made my mother as a child practice piano non-stop, no social life, no friends. It wasn’t good. But my mother was a terrific pianist.
    And a neighbor was pushing her son to learn to read at four and was worried that he couldn’t. Four?
    Gee, when my sister, a classical singer, gave a fundraising recital for cancer research about 8 years ago, mother was in the audience. After the program was over, my mother was telling everyone around her that, “it was all my doing.”
    Well, my parents encouraged my sister and paid for what she needed to do, but it was her own drive that got her to achieve what she everything.

    • It sure sounds as though you’re familiar with the ‘stage parent,’ Kathy. All of those examples really show how people can push their children to excel, no matter what sacrifices the children may have to make. And you’re right: the individual’s drive and ambition have a lot to do with that person’s success.

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