The Mistress's Daughter, by A. M. Homes
In some respects, A M Homes's recent mainstream acceptance is surprising. It's hard to understand how the prickly, awkward author of novels such as The End of Alice, a Lolita-esque tale about a convicted child molester and murderer, ended up (via the Richard and Judy selection process) with novels on sale in Woolworths. But the literary landscape has changed dramatically now, and one crowd-pleasing novel (last year's This Book Will Save Your Life) can transform a literary career.
Fortunately, Homes has achieved this success through the quality of her work alone. Zadie Smith has claimed that "to our generation of writers, Homes is a kind of hero" which seems to overstate the case, but it's true that her mainstream breakthrough was preceded by an increasing critical respect, much of which gathered with her 2002 story collection, Things You Should Know.
So, at least initially, it seems disappointing that she's chosen to cement her reputation with an upscale misery memoir, describing how she felt when her birth parents tracked her down (via a lawyer) in her early thirties. But the quality of Homes's prose is so good that it elevates what seems like a cynical exercise into something as compelling and eerie as her fiction.
When Homes first encounters her father, the first thing he tells her is that he isn't circumcised. From this she deduces that he's obsessed with his penis. He describes Home's mother, 15 when to his 32, as "a slut who knew more than her years - things a young girl shouldn't know." Homes's Nabokov obsession (in conversation with Martin Amis and Stephen King, she once described him as her perfect reader) returns here, as she wonders whether her mother was trained to seduce men by a woman like Shelley Winters playing Charlotte Haze in the film version of Lolita.
Homes is initially dismayed by her birth mother's behaviour: the way she reads her books to seek ownership of her, and her inability to play a maternal role, suggesting Homes should be the one who rescues her. She enters into complicity with her father, pleased rather than offended when he suggests they should secretly share a DNA test to make sure they are related, an experience she describes as "beyond sexual". Soon they are meeting in the middle of the afternoon in low-rent hotels and Homes is imagining him asking her to strip to prove her identity and having sex with her.
The book's title only makes sense in the second half, where Homes deals with how she felt after her birth mother's death from kidney failure. Having pushed the woman away while she was alive, she analyses whether she should feel guilty for not having helped her, refusing to accompany her to the hospital for tests when she was scared or to offer her a kidney, a gift that would've saved her life. The second part also includes much weaker sections, such as an indulgent chapter in which Homes traces her genealogy through Google searches, an activity that she struggles to make sound dramatic, and a digression about her grandmother.
Throughout The Mistress's Daughter Homes suffers dissatisfaction. Her birth mother is not the high-flyer she imagined, her father refuses to give her the results of the DNA test they shared when she needs it to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, her attempts to put together a history for herself soon founder. To make the book work, she has to put her storytelling instincts aside and lay herself open to the messiness of real life; in finding the courage to do so, she has created a memoir of unusual merit.
June 3, 2007
Granta £12.99 pp238
Reviewed by Miranda Seymour
The American novelist Amy Homes reportedly leads a life of high-octane glamour: her literary friends include Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen, her musical acquaintances include David Bowie and Mick Jagger. It’s a far cry from the world of furtive assignations and long-buried shame into which she takes the reader in her arresting new work, The Mistress’s Daughter.
The book, a memoir, opens in December, 1992. Homes, adopted at birth by a prosperous and high-minded Washington DC couple, receives startling news: a call has come from her birth mother. After 31 years, Ellen Ballman wants to meet her child. Phyllis Homes, the adoptive mother, then adds a second piece of information. “I get up knowing one thing about myself,” Homes announces dramatically. “I am the mistress’s daughter.”
Ellen Ballman (“the mistress”) proves to be a chaotic Dusty Spring-field lookalike, a would-be beautician from Atlantic City with a “raspy, accented, coarse” voice, reaching out to her impeccably middle-class daughter only because she has nowhere else left to go. Unnerved by Ellen’s neediness, Homes keeps her distance. First, however, she tracks down her birth father, Norman Hecht: the married man who wooed, impregnated and abandoned young Ellen, a teenager who was working in one of his shops.
Hecht (chubby, pink-faced, still married, with children who know nothing of their illegitimate sister) is understandably reluctant to unbury his past. When Homes finds him, she is hidden from view, just as her mother once was. Unsparingly, Homes makes it clear that she is conscious of the Hecht family’s vulgarity, and that this matters. As an intelligent, ambitious woman and an established author, she feels they owe her respect. Instead, Hecht’s wife insists on a DNA test.
The first half of this book burns with anger and frustration. Homes resents her father’s pride in his legitimate daughter, a smiling housewife. Invited to an expensive lunch by her mother, Homes dresses up in what she considers her best clothes. Ellen arrives elated, dripping furs like a movie queen; once at the table, however, she oozes disappointment. “I hadn’t measured up,” Homes writes. A rising sense of inadequacy provokes cruelty: she walks out on her mother, vowing never to see her again.
Four years pass. In December 1997, Ellen sends her daughter a birthday card, with a note telling of chronic kidney failure, a terror of going into hospital alone. Homes stays away. Six months later, Ellen dies. Homes visits Ellen’s house, photographs the meagre contents, and removes them for later scrutiny. Subsequently, Hecht reveals that Ellen had needed a kidney to match her own. She hadn’t dared appeal to her daughter directly. “I failed her,” Homes writes. “I was so busy protecting myself from her that I didn’t do a good enough job recognising the trouble she was in.”
Fiction is Homes’s forte. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Ellen becomes most real after her death, when Homes repossesses her mother and fictionalises her. Confidently, she recreates the story of the scorned mistress who gives birth alone. She pictures Ellen and Hecht in poster-bright colours, back in their palmier days, driving in an open convertible, the radio blaring. “This is it, this is the life.”
It isn’t, of course. It’s powerful fiction, an accusation Homes deflects by allowing a friend to challenge her: “You’re making it all up.”
Is she? In December 2004, Homes published what was to become the opening section of this book in the New Yorker. It was that unwanted publicity, she tells us now, that caused a horrified Hecht to cut all links with her. Homes responds by putting Hecht on trial. (“Do you think of yourself as a good father?” she demands. “How did you feel when you heard that Miss Ballman had passed?”) This is discomforting – Mr Hecht, still alive, can’t answer back – but the reader is conscious that it is a fictional device. Homes says so. But what should we make of the unadmitted: the discrepancies between the New Yorker article and the finished book?
Back in 2004, writing for the magazine, Homes made it clear that she had always been aware that she was the product of an illicit relationship. “I grew up knowing one thing about myself,” she wrote then. “I am the mistress’s daughter.” In 2007, however, she offers a version, in which she claims to learn this startling fact for the first time at the age of 31. “I get up knowing one thing about myself. I am the mistress’s daughter.” Not “grew” up, but “get” up. The drama is heightened at the expense of truth.
This matters. For, if we can’t trust Homes on her very first page, how much faith can we place in the rest of this powerful and disturbing book?
The mother and father of all reunions
Adopted writer AM Homes's The Mistress's Daughter takes an unsatisfactory meeting with her birth parents and turns it into a violent fable for the 21st century, says Hilary Spurling
Sunday June 3, 2007
The Mistress's Daughter
by AM Homes
Granta £12.99, pp256
Part-way through this book, AM Homes meets her double in the person of the man who fathered and abandoned her after a casual affair nearly half a century ago. He is pink-cheeked, white-haired and fancy-suited with thick legs and stubby hands like paws. 'He is my exact replica, the male version of me.'
A few pages later, she comes across a newspaper photo of his daughter, her legitimate half-sister (who has no idea that Homes exists). 'I see her fat thighs, her belly, her feet, her outstretched hand and it is my thigh, my belly, my feet, my hand.' The sinister thing is that this woman is sitting in a local McDonald's with her small daughter got up in a Barbie outfit. Homes's best-known story, 'A Real Doll', is about a boy dating and eventually raping his sister's Barbie doll. 'I was being ironic; she is being serious.'
This confrontation between two sisters or, rather, the collision it represents between two fantasies - one profoundly ironic, the other just as profoundly serious - is the core of this book. The Mistress's Daughter is an account by a novelist famously hostile to autobiography of parallel encounters as an adult with her birth parents. 'It's a memoir ... about two people I never knew and it's about a life I never had,' she says. 'It kind of becomes a Beckett thing.'
Beckettian Barbies are the natural inhabitants of Homes's literary landscape. The three leading characters preparing to meet one another in her memoir all behave like teenagers on a first date. Homes and her birth mother Ellen initially make contact through phone calls ('they are seductive, addictive, punishing'). The pair exchange flowers, cuddly toys, notes, cards and confidences. The mother grows steadily more demanding. Plans for a trip to the zoo spiral into full-scale takeover. '"Why won't you see me?" she whines. "You should adopt me - and take care of me," she says.'
Parent and child swap roles. Ellen comes to meet her daughter wearing the fluffy fur bolero, slacks and high-piled hairdo of her Fifties generation. 'I suspect this is the way she must have dressed when she used to meet my father ... I feel suddenly defensive ... I sense I am not measuring up.'
Like her father before her, Homes backtracks for fear of being swallowed whole. 'After the millionth phone call, I ask Ellen to stop calling.' Homes meanwhile embarks on a separate liaison with her father, who is critical of his long-lost daughter's dress sense and all too clearly unimpressed by her professional career. She worries about her looks and what to wear for their secret assignations ('I want his approval').
They meet in cheap hotels where she imagines undressing for him and knows he is imagining it, too. Both have visions of her being accepted by his family, a daydream hastily abandoned after a single brief encounter with his wife.
Homes knows well enough that, rationally speaking, she would have been unlikely to survive with either parent ('The more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up'). But her imagination listens to the siren song of unreason. Stalked by her mother, she stalks her father, posting herself outside his house, picturing the life inside, pretending to be part of it. Dissatisfaction with her own adoptive parents - fond, anxious presences hovering on the outskirts of this story - comes to a crisis in a fearful passage when Homes parks her car on a Christmas visit home and sits brooding in the carport: 'I am in front of the house, the only house we ever lived in, in front of my family... I am so angry, so sad, hating everyone for who they are and for everything they are not. It is the rising of emotion, everything I can't articulate begins whirling inside me... I am gunning the engine, wishing I'd take my foot off the brake; the car is straining under my foot. The car... wants to go forward, to hurl itself blindly through the wall and into the kitchen. I picture the cabinets emptying out, dishes breaking, the engine punching through the back of the refrigerator, a headlight coming through the crisper door.'
It is the quintessential American dream with Homes at 32 playing the aggressive and destructive teenage dreamer. Her foothold on the volcanic shifting inner levels of reality was precarious from the start. In moods like this, it threatens to give way altogether. Anger spurts from terror. 'I grew up furious,' she writes at the beginning of her book and, near the end, after her birth mother's premature death and her father's final bleak rejection: 'What bubbles beneath is rage - nuclear-hot rage.'
The first half of this book is a startling, sometimes shocking voyage of discovery. In the second, Homes puts herself through what Germaine Greer, in an equally unforgiving memoir of her unsatisfactory father, calls the bureaucratic mincer. Archives are combed, libraries ransacked, the web comprehensively dug over. Bloodlines flow in from Russia, Europe, England and all over America. Family history becomes a painful and protracted process of resuscitation.
What is unexpected is the sheer violence of the operation. Piecing and holding together an identity turns into a bodily ordeal as drastic as fainting or spewing up. Homes is consumed by fear of invisibility, disintegration, obliteration. Chaos and confusion suck her under. At times, she can barely breathe; at others, her body chills and stiffens like a corpse. Chemicals flood her system. She feels herself evaporating, imploding, folding into nothingness 'like origami'.
The Mistress's Daughter turns truth into a fable for the 21st century in much the same way as Nabokov's Lolita did for the 20th or Baudelaire's vision of being haunted by his double for the 19th. It thrives on the tangled roots of fact and fiction. It articulates and makes a kind of poetry out of a mundane predicament central to our fluid, fissile, fractured world: 'I am the product of a sex life, not a relationship.'
Memoirs of adoption
The bittersweet taste of discovery
memoir, A.M. Homes observes that genealogical research has become a top-ranking
American hobby—though “it's more like a sport, collecting ancestors like
baseball cards.” An idle pastime for some, climbing one's family tree can seem a
primal necessity for the adopted.
The product of a 1950s love affair between a naive girl and her older, married employer, the author had managed contentedly with warm, inclusive adoptive parents into her thirties. Then, out of the blue, her lonely birth-mother, Ellen, contacts the daughter given up at birth. Leery of this unstable, clingy woman, Ms Homes agrees to speak only on the telephone. Ellen tracks her down anyway. At the end of their awkward first meeting, Ellen asks if Ms Homes will ever forgive her for having given her away. “‘I forgive you. You absolutely did the right thing,' I say, never having meant it more.”
Abruptly, “My mother is dead. My mother called to tell me my mother is dead? This is the dissonance, the split, the impossibility of living two lives at once.” Seemingly a burden, Ellen's emergence was in fact an all too brief opportunity. Ms Homes plunders Ellen's apartment for a cache of clues to her birth-mother's identity, only to shy away from the boxes once she is home: “She put me up for adoption—I'm sending her to mini-storage.”
Meanwhile the greasy birth-father, Norman, proves as great a disappointment to his illegitimate daughter as he did to his pregnant mistress. Insisting on a paternity test—supposedly as a prelude to welcoming the narrator into his family—Norman denies her a copy of its positive results. His subsequent refusal to deal with Ms Homes other than through his lawyer fires her determination to trace each and every twig of her newly discovered family tree.
Thus the author spends much time and money “to find out what I already know—I am related to everyone”. Along the way she tells a poignant, bittersweet story. For Ms Homes, our twining DNA ties us to past and future. The mesmerising specificity of faded photographs and fly-specked wedding licences makes it all seem less arbitrary.
Novelist sears birth parents in memoir
Reviewed by Heller McAlpin
Sunday, April 8, 2007
The Mistress's Daughter
By A.M. Homes
VIKING; 238 Pages; $24.95
In 2004, A.M. Homes published a personal essay in the New Yorker about meeting her biological parents 12 years earlier, at 31. It was, in its way, as startling and riveting as her fiction. That is saying a lot. Homes' fearless, disturbing novels include "The End of Alice," about an imprisoned pedophile, and "Music for Torching," about a couple who burn down their house for the insurance.
"The Mistress's Daughter" encompasses her eponymous essay, significantly expanded. Although the core essay is the most powerful part of the book, curious readers will appreciate additional material that delves deeper into Homes' roots and the fallout from adoption in general. Her discomfort in writing an autobiography seeps through the later chapters; we feel her effort and teeth-clenched determination to complete this project.
In 2004, Homes protected her parents' identities with pseudonyms, although her biological mother had been dead for six years. The wraps are now off. Her birth mother was Ellen Ballman, who became pregnant at 22 after a seven-year affair with her married, older boss, Norman Hecht. He had been stringing her along with promises of marriage for years, but then dropped her completely. His wife gave birth to their third child shortly before Homes was born, in December 1961.
Homes captures the shock of meeting these intimate strangers for the first time. She describes the seismic jolt to her life in a novelist's terms: "The fragile, fragmented narrative, the thin line of the story, the plot of my life, has been abruptly recast." She adds, "There is a deep fracture in my thoughts, a refrain constantly echoing: I am not who I thought I was, and I have no idea who I am."
Ellen is a pathetic, needy woman whose development seems to have been arrested in late adolescence, searching for someone to mother her rather than the reverse. She stalks her long-lost daughter at book readings, whines on the phone, expects Valentine's Day gifts. Homes comments, "The more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up. I can't imagine having grown up with her. I would not have survived."
When Ellen dies of kidney disease at 60, Homes writes movingly of "the profound loss of a piece of myself that I never knew, a piece that I pushed away because it was so frightening."
The story of Homes' birth and private adoption is not unique. Tales such as hers have received lighter treatment in novels, including Elinor Lipman's "Then She Found Me." More significantly, Ann Fessler interviewed scores of Ellens for her recent gut-wrenching book, "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade." One wishes Fessler's book had been available to Homes before she met her biological mother, as it might have given her a more sympathetic understanding of what Ellen endured at a time when single mothers were shamed into relinquishing their babies.
In searing prose, Homes addresses the powerlessness and deracination that are the general lot of those surrendered children: "To be adopted is to be adapted, to be amputated and sewn back together again. Whether or not you regain full function, there will always be scar tissue."
As the product of what she determines was "a sex life, not a relationship," Homes vents her anger at Norman, whose dark hair, dimples and body shape she inherited.
Norman pressures Homes to do a DNA test and refuses to give her a copy of the positive results when, after years of "electronic digs" researching her ancestry on the Internet, she decides to join the Daughters of the American Revolution as a way to claim her heritage.
Hell hath no fury like a daughter scorned and "denied my right to own my own identity." We can't help cheering as Homes fantasizes angry letters and a scathing deposition of this selfish, thoughtless man who wanted the evidence of his bad behavior to go away, and stay away. Furious and grief-stricken that he is subjecting her to the same dismissive brush-off he gave Ellen, Homes writes, "My mother had no life after she gave me up -- she never married, never had another family. She had invested in him from a very early age -- he used her and then said goodbye. She never recovered."
Woe unto shameful parents whose offspring grow up to become writers. Like Paula Fox's "Borrowed Finery," "The Mistress's Daughter" is a lacerating memoir in which the formerly powerless child triumphs with the help of a mighty pen.
And triumph Homes does. Not only does she have her successful literary career, but, as she indicates in her surprisingly sentimental coda, she also has her family: not just her adoptive brother and parents, but memories of her inspirational adoptive grandmother, plus her very own "biological echo" -- a daughter.
Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Chronicle, Newsday and other publications.
By A. M. Homes.
Illustrated. 238 pp. Viking. $24.95.
April 8, 2007
By KATIE ROIPHE
As a novelist, A. M. Homes has made a minor speciality of luridness. In all of her writing there is a latent sense that a crime has been or is about to be committed. Her memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” is no exception: it has the same foreboding, the same ambience of barely controlled menace. It opens with the sentence: “I remember their insistence that I come into the living room and sit down and how the dark room seemed suddenly threatening, how I stood in the kitchen doorway holding a jelly doughnut and how I never eat jelly doughnuts.” And as Homes moves through her account of her origins, the prevailing mood is that of film noir.
Homes was 31 when she was contacted by her biological mother, Ellen Ballman. It emerges that her real father, Norman Hecht, was Ellen’s boss — older, married, an ex-football player, with children of his own. Homes tells us that she was adopted by a couple whose own son had died six months earlier. Before they brought her home, “the trusted pediatrician” was “dispatched to the hospital to make an evaluation of the merchandise — think of movies where the drug dealer samples the stuff before turning over the cash.” Such details will be familiar to readers of Homes’s fiction: a lawyer from “In a Country of Mothers” calls the adoptive parents and says, “your package has arrived and it’s wrapped in pink ribbons.”
Like Bret Easton Ellis, A. M. Homes writes sleek, violent cartoons of contemporary existence, and it’s fascinating to watch this novelist of extremes handle the delicate material of her own life. Homes’s imagination inhabits the wildest shores of satire, where a bored husband and wife not only have affairs but smoke crack and set fire to their suburban house with a grill; where a wife who is a little angry with her husband after a party cuts his neck with a kitchen knife; where a fat man is envisioned “chewing on the small bones of a roasted baby something — chicken, lamb, child.” There is rage behind this stylish nihilism, and it finds its purest expression in this memoir: the figures in Homes’s life often behave as if she had invented them.
Her biological mother calls when Homes neglects to send a valentine: “You can just go to the roof of your building and jump off.” And after she gets in touch with her biological father, he takes her to hotels where they sit in fern bars like an illicit couple. Homes herself lurks in a parked car outside his house and sees a girl pulling back a curtain. (“Is she my sister?”) There is a lot of stalking in “The Mistress’s Daughter.”
Other, more potentially ordinary moments turn sinister. The needle piercing Homes’s skin during a DNA test is “beyond sexual.” Describing a book reading, she writes: “From the moment I arrive, I have the sense they are there — exactly who, I am not sure — but I can tell I am being watched, sized up. There is the strange sensation that something else is going on — there are people here who have come for a reason other than to hear me read.” The relentless flatness and darkness of Homes’s imagination is both explained and exploited in the pages of her memoir.
In one of the book’s more powerful scenes, Homes imagines driving a car into the wall of her adoptive parents’ house. She is enraged, but she stops herself when she remembers how much her adoptive mother loves her china. Next, she imagines going inside, taking the dishes off the shelves and then driving the car into the wall, “though it wouldn’t be quite the same.” It is in these rogue moments of tenderness that one feels her psychological quandary: how caught she is between wanting to live in the house and wanting to smash it to pieces.
Of course, a situation where extra parents suddenly turn up after one is fully grown lends itself to strangeness, almost to kitsch. Her new mother sends Homes a child’s birthday card shaped like a teddy bear and signed “Love, Mommy Ellen.” Her new father gives her a heart-shaped locket appropriate for a little girl. Homes agrees to meet Ellen at the Oyster Bar of the Plaza, with all of its evocations of Eloise. The woman arrives in a ratty white fur jacket, and orders Harveys Bristol Cream. That is the last time Homes sees her before she dies of kidney disease.
In many ways, this book is really about a wild goose chase. There is no epiphany here. In all the moments when some shimmering self might rise intact from the detritus, it does not. In the cardboard boxes with her mother’s possessions (which Homes labels with a characteristic lack of euphemism, “Dead Ellen 1-4”) she finds nothing to provide some unaccustomed comfort in the world, nothing that will save her — only containers filled with sheet music, unopened bills, phone messages and receipts, some of which she puts in ministorage.
And then, as if an active part of this psychological spectacle, the second half of the book falls to pieces. Homes begins an obsessive search on the Internet for her antecedents, even hiring two researchers to help her. What follows is a random, frantic amassing of detail. She uncovers biographical fragments about people who are related to her, and some who are not. She muses on the general difficulties of her relatives’ immigrant experience. But somehow in this wild quest for identity she loses focus, and in the process, any remnant of narrative control. Where, one begins to feel along with her, is A. M. Homes?
Still, if “The Mistress’s Daughter” is not entirely satisfying, if it loses some of its furious precision — its perverse, artful inquisition into the motives of its principals — as a document of a flawed, incoherent self, it remains fierce and eloquent. And even some of its messier sections are gripping. Take the chapter in which Homes writes an imaginary deposition for her biological father. It consists of a list of questions running down the page: “Did you ask your daughter to meet you in hotels? Why not coffee shops? What is the nature of your thoughts about your daughter?” In its hallucinatory way, this list fairly accurately represents the true plot of the book: the questions Homes wanted to ask, the answers she will never receive. As she writes, “I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken.”
She also says, “I do not want this to be the most depressing story ever told” — though one imagines if there is anyone on earth who could write such a story it could well be Homes. But this book veers toward the sentimental, concluding with an unusually straightforward tribute to her inspiring adoptive grandmother. Here the reader cannot help thinking of the ferocity of Homes’s fiction: the suburban house going up in flames, the gunshots in the mall. Normally, she is not one to reach for consoling niceties, for flourishes of redemption and images of human endurance. How can the ruthless author of “Music for Torching” and “The Safety of Objects” allow herself this easy way out of a story that can have no easy way out? It feels false.
What does not feel false is a sentence on the last page: “I am my mother’s child and I am my mother’s child, I am my father’s child and I am my father’s child, and if that line is a little too much like Gertrude Stein, then I might be a little bit her child too.”
Katie Roiphe is the author of the forthcoming “Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles, 1910-1939.”
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
search of the term "genealogy" yields more than 47 million hits. With the growth
of the Internet, it is indisputable that the impulse to trace one's ancestors
has become a source of passionate engagement for many. Paralleling that
phenomenon is the explosive popularity of the memoir genre. These trends
converge with considerable power in A.M. Homes's frank and moving new memoir,
THE MISTRESS'S DAUGHTER.
Recognized as a keen-eyed observer of contemporary society in her fiction (THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS, THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE), Homes shifts her vision inward with equal acuity in this work. During a visit to her adoptive parents in Washington, D.C. at Christmas 1992, she learns --- through the family lawyer who had arranged her private adoption in 1961 --- that her mother, Ellen Ballman, who gave birth to her at the age of 22, wants to make contact. Homes's birth was the culmination of a relationship Ellen had had with a married employer almost 20 years her senior.
At first, Homes's engagement with her mother is unsettling, as Ellen lurks around the fringes of the author's appearance at a Washington bookstore and peppers her with phone calls and letters. Their first real meeting, at New York's Plaza Hotel, is poignant, if awkward. After devouring a lobster dinner, Ellen seeks her daughter's forgiveness for giving her up. Homes readily grants it in that encounter, but tensions between them soon emerge. Ellen persists in reaching out to a child who is unwilling to reciprocate the feelings of a woman she considers strange and difficult.
Concealing the seriousness of her medical condition from her daughter, Ellen dies of kidney failure in 1998, and Homes waits until 2005 to open the four boxes of papers and personal effects she removes from her mother's house after her death. When she does, she discovers a bizarre assortment of materials that reveal a life combining incidents of petty crime with the struggle of a single woman simply to survive after her lover's devastating rejection and the loss of her child.
As needy as Ellen is, Homes paints an even more problematic picture of her father, Norman Hecht. He's a respected businessman and father of four, but, as portrayed by Homes, he's little more than a handsome, self-absorbed lout. Most of their encounters take place in hotel lobbies at his request, as if their own relationship has an illicit aspect to it. Shortly after their first meeting, Norman insists that they undergo DNA testing that reveals the near certainty of his paternity. Later, when Homes almost sheepishly applies for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, made possible by the English ancestry she traces to the mid-16th century through her paternal grandmother, Norman does everything possible to deny that he's her father.
Homes's prose is spare and uninflected, occasionally bringing to mind the work of Joan Didion ("To be adopted is to be adapted, to be amputated and sewn back together again. Whether or not you regain full function, there will always be scar tissue."). Repeatedly, she returns to this theme of brokenness or the absence of wholeness that has plagued her as a child of adoption. There is considerable emotion in the story's telling, but for the most part it bubbles below the surface of the narrative. The memoir's seriousness is leavened with occasional humor, most notably in Homes's account of Norman's difficulty finding an acceptable payment method for the DNA test.
Homes devotes her final chapter to a loving tribute to her adoptive mother's mother, a vibrant woman who died "unexpectedly" at the age of 99. She writes movingly of her grandmother's inspiration that resulted in Homes giving birth to a daughter at the age of 41, after two years of considerable effort. Somehow it seems fitting that this unusual family saga will continue at least into one more generation.
What gives this memoir its originality and emotional force is that it turns on its head the conventional account of an adopted child on a quest to find her birth parents and instead offers the story of an adult involuntarily introduced to them when they re-enter her life. Despite her initial lack of inclination to discover her roots, Homes finds the journey she's launched on by her birth parents' unexpected appearance a transformative and ultimately rewarding one. In the end, she offers a fitting benediction to this flawed and all-too-human pair: "Did I choose to be found? No. Do I regret it? No. I couldn't not know."
Friday, April 13, 2007 - 12:00 AM
"The Mistress's Daughter" | Sharing a fractured family narrative
By Mark Lindquist
"The Mistress's Daughter"
by A.M. Homes
Viking, 238 pp., $24.95
Novelists sacrifice part of their mystery when they write memoirs.
When readers only know an author through fiction and a few interviews, they can project onto the author almost any qualities they choose. They are free to think the author is as insightful, humane, or whatever, as they want to believe.
Memoirs, particularly the soul-baring confessionals that today's market demands, can spoil that illusion, occasionally revealing authors to be self-absorbed and unappealing, just like some regular people. Memoirs can change the way we read an author's fiction.
This is risky for an author, but sometimes it works out in the author's favor. For example, I was not a fan of Jonathan Lethem's work until I read his geeky memoir and learned about his life and his influences, which spanned the gamut from "Star Wars" to Kurt Vonnegut to Pink Floyd and made him seem more complex than I expected from his early fiction.
A.M. Homes, in her memoir "The Mistress's Daughter," fearlessly gives away her mystery and much more. Known for her edgy novels and stories about people with pieces missing, she lets us know here what was missing from her own life and fills us in on the accompanying fears and neuroses as well.
"I grew up furious. I feared that there was something about me, some defect of birth that made me repulsive, unlovable." She wonders if she is "too fractured to connect with another person."
As the title suggests, Homes was the daughter of a mistress. At 17 her biological mother began an affair with an older, married man. Eventually she became pregnant with Homes. Three days after birth, she gives Homes to a family who had just lost a boy and wanted another child.
"I always felt that my role in the family was to heal things, to make everything alright — to replace a dead boy."
Thirty-one years later Homes' biological mother tracks Homes down, and this in turn sends Homes on a search for the history of her biological family.
She learns that her biological mother is unsophisticated and a touch nutty, and her biological father is a self-centered jackass. The former gives her anxiety, the latter enrages her.
At times I wondered if Homes was going to learn the lesson of Oedipus — sometimes we might be better off not knowing, but Homes presses on, driven by a need to form a family narrative. Though the quest seems, at times, overwrought as Homes searches for meaning and connection where there may not be any, the writing is consistently controlled and knowing.
In the end Homes ties together disparate family branches with a moving wisdom that would make any parent proud, and she connects with other people, including her own daughter. Though Homes gives away some of her mystery with this book, she will gain further respect as a writer.
Mark Lindquist's new novel, "The King of Methlehem," will be published in May.
April 8, 2007
The Mistress's Daughter, By A.M. Homes Viking, 238 pages, $24.95.
by Hillary Frey
Three years ago, A.M. Homes published a personal essay in The New Yorker called “The Mistress’s Daughter.” For a fiction writer, the inward turn was surprising, but this was no sappy, brooding piece of work; it was the story of Ms. Homes discovering her birth parents. Or, rather, being discovered by her birth parents, a sad, never-to-have-been couple who got pregnant not only out of wedlock, but while the father was married, with a growing family.
That essay—perfectly executed—comprises the first part of Ms. Homes’ new book. If you missed it the first time around, here’s a chance to catch up. I wish I could say that the rest of the book adds to the experience. Unfortunately, The Mistress’s Daughter bears all the symptoms of a nasty plague in publishing: It’s a book that began as an essay and should have remained an essay. There’s no reason to dress it up as something it isn’t.
The original essay is as suspenseful and deft as one of Ms. Homes’ short stories. (She’s a novelist, too, but short stories are her strength.) We meet Ellen Ballman and Norman Hecht—the biological parents who gave her away as a newborn—and are as horrified and brokenhearted for Ms. Homes as one can be for a stranger. Ellen never grew up; she’s as innocent and needy as she was at 22, when she gave birth. Ellen’s married lover, Norman, who was clearly captivated with her—and seems to be haunted by her still after 30-odd years—reveals himself to be a weak, cold man who refuses to see that he’s either one. Norman insists on meeting his daughter in hotels (a move with sexual overtones that would never—and do not—go unnoticed by a writer like Ms. Homes), and later, after asking her to take a DNA test to prove his paternity (which she does perfectly willingly), all but vanishes from her life.
Much of the story is told in dialogue—conversations with her mother (“You should adopt me and take care of me,” Ellen says) and her father (who stiffly ends every conversation with the blow-off, WASP-y phrase, “Fine thing”). Dialogue, both perfectly natural and refreshingly crisp, has always been Ms. Homes’ great skill, her preferred method of exposing her characters’ inner life.
THE SECOND, LONGER PART OF THE BOOK is sluggish and contrived. Ms. Homes all but abandons the ruthless investigation of her feelings about her parents (all four of them) and heads for far less compelling terrain: her extended genealogy. It’s a tale of immigrants and brothers and sisters and farms, with mixed-up last names and microfiches. (O.K., that’s an exaggeration, but there are a lot of dusty file cabinets here.) At the very end is a sweet tribute to her adoptive grandmother, who’s like a wise, seen-it-all character from a Doris Lessing novel. She died at 99, and Ms. Homes writes as if the pain and confusion of being adopted were made up for by the privilege of having known this great woman.
The Mistress’s Daughter is a brave book, despite its failings—one that will be devoured by other adoptees and their families, not to mention memoir-guzzlers. The first part is a must-read for any fan of Ms. Homes’ fiction. Although her work doesn’t tend to be autobiographical, learning a bit about her roots helps shed light on some of her imaginative choices. Here, for example, she emphasizes how much she and her father resemble each other, and how eerie it is for both of them. In The Safety of Objects, a young man kidnaps a young, tomboyish girl and begs her to behave like a boy, like his dead brother, Sam. The resemblance between the girl and his brother is almost unbearable for him.
A.M. Homes hasn’t had the easiest life, but we can be grateful for the strange and original body of work it has produced. (Her fiction, that is.)
Hillary Frey edits the culture pages of The Observer.
The Mistress's Daughter
By Steve Giegerich
The summons for a family discussion in the living room provided the first clue. "My parents are not formal people," author A.M. Homes writes. "No one sits in the living room."
Her adoptive parents, that is. Expecting the worst — "Who died?" — the conversation instead turned on a revelation anticipated with equal parts dread and fantasy.
"After a lifetime spent in a virtual witness-protection program, I've been exposed," Homes writes in "The Mistress's Daughter."
Exposed as the product of a 1961 affair between a married, narcissistic businessman and a 22-year-old single woman of questionable judgment and emotional stability.
Written in the
sparse, evocative style that has earned her a place among the vanguard of top
fictional narrators, "The Mistress's Daughter" is an absorbing account of Homes'
struggle to understand who, at multiple levels, she is.
In sharing both her biological and adoptive genealogy, Homes presents a case study on how each of us is the sum total of our ancestral parts. Adoptees more than others.
"The fragile, fragmented narrative, the thin line of story, the plot of my life, has been abruptly recast," she writes. "I am dealing with the divide between sociology and biology: the chemical necklace of DNA that wraps around the neck sometimes like a beautiful ornament — our birthright, our history — and other times like a choke chain."
At 31, Homes was already an established author when the biological past arrived.
Her birth and adopted parents were a study in contrasts: The husband and wife who adopted Homes at birth were refined, well-read, grounded. Her birth mother — crass, common and low-brow — flirted on the outskirts of the law, then moved to Atlantic City, N.J. Say no more.
After the birth mother's death, Homes cleaned out her apartment. The boxes remained unopened for seven years before Homes combed through the remnants of a life not-well-lived.
Raw and painful, "The Mistress's Daughter" is unsparing in its honesty and vivid in its detail.
Ultimately, Homes invites the reader to take a seat at the French walnut dining room inherited from her adoptive maternal grandmother. There, she concludes what is, in effect, an intriguing conversation that runs to 238 pages:
"I see now that I am a product of each of my family narratives — some more than others. But in the end it is all four threads that twist and rub against one another, the fusion and friction combining to make me who and what I am."
Lost and Found
An adoptee finally meets her troubled biological parents.
Reviewed by Michael Mewshaw
Sunday, April 15, 2007; Page BW09
THE MISTRESS'S DAUGHTER
By A.M. Homes
Viking. 238 pp. $24.95
In 2004 the New Yorker published an excerpt from A.M. Homes's memoir, The Mistress's Daughter. Stylish, provocative and deeply personal, the piece dealt with the author's adoption and reunion with her biological parents. Such stories often have the cloying inevitability of Hallmark cards, but Homes deployed the same gimlet eye and ironic sensibility that distinguish her fiction. The book, which was said to be forthcoming, held out tantalizing promise.
Homes's birth mother, Ellen, had sought her out, seemingly driven less by the desire to meet the child she had given up than by personal demons. "You should adopt me and take good care of me," Ellen declared. When her baffled daughter didn't respond enthusiastically enough, Ellen phoned on Valentine's Day and told her, "You can just go to the roof of your building and jump off."
As a teenager in Washington, Ellen had worked for a wealthy, older married man who took her as his mistress, strung her along with promises to leave his wife, then dumped her when she became pregnant. It gradually crosses Homes's mind that Ellen may be more interested in reconnecting with her ex-lover than with her.
As for Homes's biological father, Norman, he arranges to rendezvous with Homes in a hotel bar and gives the creepy impression that he might shift his lecherous feelings to his daughter. Like Ellen, he has no interest in Homes's needs or emotions. When not treating her as a tart, he infantilizes her, sending a gold locket for her 32nd birthday, a gift that's "more like pre-jewelry, like a training bra." Promising to accept her into his family and introduce her to her half-siblings, he asks only that she submit to a DNA test. But when the test proves his paternity, he distances himself. It dawns on Homes that he had been hoping for an excuse to exclude her from his family and estate.
While Norman keeps Homes in a separate compartment of his life, much as he did with his mistress, Ellen intrudes at every opportunity, even stalking Homes at literary events. When Ellen suffers serious medical problems, she expects Homes to donate a kidney. Not surprisingly, Homes reacts with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion, and a pulse of rage starts to beat against the sassy attitude the author tries to strike. When irony proves inadequate, the harried daughter pulls away. Yet after Ellen dies, Homes feels haunted by "the profound loss of a piece of myself that I never knew, a piece that I pushed away because it was so frightening."
Roughly at this point, the excerpt in the New Yorker ended. Now, more than two years later, with the complete book in hand, one suspects that Homes had difficulty discovering material that lived up to the early chapter. Seven years after Ellen's death, Homes unpacks the poor woman's personal effects, and when this doesn't lead her to deeper understanding, she falls back on fiction and imagines Ellen's love affair with her father. A friend rightly objects, "You're making it up." To which the author lamely responds, "The only other option is for someone to tell me how it was, what really happened."
Actually, there were alternatives. If she was contractually obligated to produce a book, she might have made a more determined effort to track down sources who could tell her "what really happened." Instead, like a diligent grad student or an amateur genealogist, she turns from people to paper, from dramatic scenes to a computer screen, from factual research to endless Googling. And in the process her memoir disperses into a pattern of unconnected dots, like a newspaper photograph held too close to the eye.
Near the end, it appears that she'll sue Norman and through legal discovery obtain not just a copy of her DNA test, but vital family information that she -- and the reader -- yearns for. Meticulously, she sets down 15 pages of questions for a possible deposition, but then never supplies a single answer, never explains what became of the dispute. Closing with another unsatisfying digression, this one about her adoptive grandmother and her own daughter, she makes a reader wonder whether she might have been wiser to leave things as they stood with the appearance of that excellent piece in the New Yorker. *
Michael Mewshaw's most recent book is "If You Could See Me Now: A Chronicle of Identity and Adoption."
The accidental memoirist
A.M. Homes claims she's not the least bit interested in herself
April 29, 2007
BY NATALIE DANFORD
A.M. Homes may have written a memoir -- the utterly compelling
THE MISTRESS'S DAUGHTER
By A.M. Homes
Viking, 238 pages, $24.95
The Mistress's Daughter, about her birth parents locating her when she was an adult, part of which appeared in the New Yorker in 2004 -- but don't call her a memoirist. Aside from Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, she's not a fan of the genre, at least not in its current form, which she defines as "I-drank-too-much-and-barfed-on-your-sofa."
"I'm not a writer who's interested in myself," Homes explains after we meet in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, where the ghost of Dorothy Parker failed to appear and where neither of us could manage to flag down a waiter to order some tea. "I would find sitting around all day and thinking about myself both tortuous and boring. This memoir is -- in some ways -- not really about me."
In fact, she notes that while she utilized the narrative skills she has acquired authoring five novels and two short story collections, writing the memoir was still "very painful and difficult."
That's unsurprising given the story Homes recounts in a deadpan voice: In 1992, when she was 31, her adoptive parents received a phone call from a woman claiming to be her birth mother, and eventually she met both her biological mother and father.
They turned out to be whiny and demanding and at the same time neglectful and insensitive. During one of a series of "seductive, addictive, punishing" conversations, Homes's birth mother suggested, "You should adopt me -- and take care of me." Her birth father termed her birth mother a "nymphomaniac," even though it was he who was 32 at the time and she was a teenager.
In fact, Homes' biological parents come across in many ways like characters from her fiction, who tend toward over-the-top behavior. In the novel Music for Torching, a married couple are so bored with each other that they set fire to their own house. The 1996 novel The End of Alice takes the form of a letter from a pedophile behind bars who is helping a young suburban woman with similar predilections realize her nefarious designs on a young boy.
Told her characters are dysfunctional, Homes says, "Show me a functional family and then we'll talk. I've always been fascinated by people's relationships to families and marriage, which they go into with the idea that it will bring out the best in them and make them a better version of themselves, and then through the mutual participation of both parties they become their worst selves and one supports the downward spiral of the other."
Homes, who got an early start by writing her first novel, Jack, at the age of 19, genuinely enjoys the writing process. "I'm happiest when I'm writing," she shrugs, admitting that she forces herself to take off one day a week. She wakes up early and writes for four or five hours each day, then revises in the afternoons. She also visits Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., several times a year for even more intense periods of work.
She describes her goal as "trying to get depth," and adds, "I don't think that's something you can get while coming in and out of social life and conversation and being a parent. You have to sit with yourself in a very Buddhist-y way until the window opens."
While Homes set strict standards of truth for the memoir, her fiction isn't at all autobiographical, and the author, who is currently developing a pilot for HBO, is disturbed by the public's inability to differentiate between fact and fiction. She says, "When I go on book tour for novels, people say, 'So, it's true, right?' We have lost the idea that a person can work from imagination, because we've become so faux fact-based -- the scripted version or the reality TV version of fact-based."
Yet in the New Yorker, Homes herself hedged. She concedes, "For the longest time I wanted to protect my biological parents, and I'm not exactly sure why. Here I am saying I'm a person compelled toward truth-telling, and I'm hiding who you are." In the magazine, she changed the names of her biological parents and concealed their identities; in the book form of the memoir, though, she names names.
The memoir employs two distinct voices, both different from the one Homes uses in stories and novels. The first section of the book deals with being found and leads up to her birth mother's death. That part is "not particularly processed," says Homes. "It has a kind of rawness and traumatized sense of really being caught in the headlights."
The second presents what came later -- Homes' frenzied genealogical research, her fractured relationship with her birth father (who is oddly sexual with her, as in when, upon meeting her, he announces that he's not circumcised), and the birth of her own daughter, now 4, who lives with Homes in New York City.
As both an adoptee and a biological mother herself, Homes hears a lot of questions about nature vs. nurture, she says, but she insists that issue is overblown. "Yes, if you put a child in a closet and beat them regularly it's not a good thing, but the reality of nature vs. nurture is that once you take an infant from one person and give it to another, you are changing the course of that person's experience in history and the minute you do that you start a new blend of nature vs. nurture. If a person grows up with their biological parents, it's still nature vs. nurture," she insists.
The disorientation of being reunited with her biological parents did not stem from that dichotomy, she says, but rather from a feeling that "in my head there were two slots for parents. That's all they give you. So I had to get a bigger hard drive in order to accept and accommodate all of this history, which is a lot per person."
Natalie Danford is the author of a novel, Inheritance, and co-editor of Best New American Voices, an annual anthology series that showcases emerging writers.
M I L W A U K E E
The Mistress's Daughter. By A.M. Homes. Viking. 238 pages. $24.95.
A.M. Homes writes her fiction in short, blunt sentences that plumb the murk beneath seemingly benign surfaces. Not surprisingly, her memoir, "The Mistress's Daughter," is written in short, blunt sentences that uncover the personal anguish previously hidden within her writer's vision.
The result is a taut, mesmerizing book that relies on both Homes' brutal honesty and her tendency toward high drama. An adopted child, she learns the circumstances of her adoption as an adult, after her biological mother makes contact.
Being an adoptee is no small matter, to be sure. Studies document how those who are given up for adoption have particular emotional needs. But in Homes' book, this status takes on a life of its own.
Like a moth to a flame, she's drawn to the emotional trauma of her status: "To be adopted is to be adapted, to be amputated and sewn back together again. Whether or not you regain full function, there will always be scar tissue."
She has just turned 30 when the story begins in 1992. Over the succeeding decade, she meets her biological parents, rebuffs her mother, obsesses over her father, and then fantasizes about their affair after her mother dies.
There's something creepy and distinctly Freudian about a daughter who refuses to see her mother, a lonely woman chased by bills and bad choices who longs for a relationship, yet meets regularly with the prosperous former football hero who arranges DNA tests in order to confirm that he's her father.
This is the same man who cheated on his wife then and keeps Homes at arm's length from his family. He pronounces judgment on her mother: "She was a nymphomaniac."
Moth to flame, indeed.
Homes dwells briefly on her stable but dull upbringing and how she missed the laughter and Christmas ornaments she saw in other households. ("We're Jewish," her adoptive mother says about the lack of holiday décor.) Her birth parents provide the longed-for jolt of excitement.
Fueled by curiosity and anger, she becomes a genealogy junkie, tapping her biological roots. But by this time her father has moved to Florida and refuses to acknowledge the DNA test that can contribute to her narrative. Her memoir names names and in no small part feels like payback - writers can always have the last word.
"The Mistress's Daughter," like most works of autobiography, succeeds because of the writer's intimacy with her material, but also suffers from it.
In the final chapter, the tension seeps out of the book as Homes describes her beloved adoptive grandmother and a two-year struggle to conceive her daughter. It's a startling turnabout: Suddenly, a life viewed through a fun-house mirror takes on normal contours.
In the end, you can't help wondering how much of the story is sincere, and how much is for dramatic effect.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a reviewer in the Portland area.
By Jane Ciabattari
Published April 8, 2007
By A.M. Homes
As a memoirist, A.M. Homes, whose often-shocking fictional tales from the underbelly of suburbia have brought her substantial literary cache, takes a characteristically fierce and fearless approach. And she has a whopper of a personal story to tell in "The Mistress's Daughter."
An adopted child, Homes was contacted by her biological mother for the first time in 1992, when Homes was 31. She discovers that her mother had become pregnant while having an affair with a married man, the owner of the dress shop in the Washington, D.C., area where she had worked since she was 15. Their child was one of 1 million or more babies given up at birth during a phase in American history when single mothers were shunned. Homes' birth mother never married, never had another child.
Homes already knew she had been adopted as a newborn, within months of the death of her adoptive mother's oldest son at age 9. She was raised with a brother whose birth had caused such complications that her mother could not have another baby. "I always felt that my role in the family was to heal things . . . to replace a dead boy," she writes. "I grew up doused in grief."
Meanwhile, she fantasized about her birth mother as "a goddess, the queen of queens, the CEO, the CFO, and the COO. Movie-star beautiful, incredibly competent. . . . She has made a fabulous life for herself, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link -- me."
This contact from her birth mother, Ellen Ballman, precipitates an identity crisis. As Homes eloquently puts it:
"The fragile, fragmented narrative, the thin line of story, the plot of my life, has been abruptly recast. I am dealing with the divide between sociology and biology: the chemical necklace of DNA that wraps around the neck sometimes like a beautiful ornament -- our birthright, our history -- and other times like a choke chain."
After a few weeks, Homes calls Ballman for the first time. "Hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard -- low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal." The phone call is "flirty as a first date" but leaves Homes uncomfortable. The next time she calls her, Ballman is angry. " 'You should adopt me -- and take care of me,' " she whines. Homes, understandably, is scared. "I am horrified at the way I see myself in her -- the loose screw is not entirely unfamiliar." She figures her biological father might have a similar reaction and writes him a letter introducing herself.
In the beginning, Homes withholds information from her mother: her last name, her address and phone number. Then Ballman leaves a message on her answering machine: " 'I know who you are. . . . I'm reading your books.' " This is birth mother as stalker, with menace in her voice. She is a nightmare, a character who would fit into one of Homes' novels.
Ballman appears at Homes' reading in a crowded bookstore in Washington in 1993, where her family and former classmates are present. Homes instinctively recognizes the stranger nervously twisting an umbrella. After all the books have been signed, Ballman approaches. " 'You're built just like your father,' " she says. Faced with two mothers in one room, Homes urges Ballman to leave. (Homes does not mention in her memoir the title of the book she was introducing that night. It was her third novel, "In a Country of Mothers," a psychological thriller about abandonment, guilt, mother love and obsession, in which a married therapist begins to believe her talented new patient, an adoptee, might be the daughter she gave up years before.)
Homes is not just any adopted daughter. She is a well-regarded novelist. It is tempting to wonder if her mother would have been so eager to track her down if this were not the case. As Homes puts it when her biological father responds to her first attempt to reach him only after a review of the new book has appeared in the newspapers, "If I'd been flipping burgers in a McDonald's instead of writing books, would I have ever heard from him?"
Homes meets the father at his attorney's office. She agrees to a DNA test, which proves she is his child. He promises to weave her into his family but meets her in clandestine places, treating her as if she were the mistress, not the mistress' daughter. He introduces her to his wife, who makes it clear she is not willing to have Homes introduced around Washington as his child. And that is the end of that.
In January 1994, Homes, who lives in New York, agrees to meet Ballman at the Oyster Bar at the Plaza Hotel. An unnamed friend waits nearby in support. Homes is barely able to breathe as she encounters this woman who seems from another era, with her rabbit fur coat and beehive hairdo. After devouring a lobster, Ballman asks for forgiveness for giving her away. " 'You absolutely did the right thing,' " Homes responds, and flees. There are further phone conversations in which Ballman makes wheedling demands, but Homes avoids meeting again.
In summer 1998, Ballman dies of kidney disease. Homes goes to the funeral. Accompanied by two unnamed friends, in a scene made powerful by understatement, she sorts through Ballman's home. This is the closest she will ever be to her mother. At one point she puts her hands into the pockets of Ballman's black jeans and discovers a wad of money, loose bills. "This is exactly the way I keep my money," she writes. She puts several boxes in storage and doesn't touch them again for years.
During the discovery part of the memoir, the push-pull of Homes' choices whether or not to follow through, to explore further, drives the story with great suspense. Ambivalence is at the core of these new, uninvited relationships. Homes' attempts to maintain her privacy, and her equally strong wish to be recognized by two people who it turns out are incapable of mirroring her, are poignant. Having been given up, then reclaimed, then asked to pony up a modicum of daughterly care, she withdraws.
Midway through her memoir, it seems Homes might have mined her story to its end, leaving only the tailings -- myriad odd findings like physical resemblances, habits in common. What is there to learn beyond her mother's death in 1998 and her father's ultimate rejection in the same year? (When she needs a copy of the DNA test to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, which he told her she was entitled to do, and which she hopes will give her further information about her ancestry, he refuses and denies that the test results exist.) She confines her story to its essence, offering relevant scenes in a vacuum, avoiding reference to the people in her adult life other than a few unnamed friends. This heightens the sense of isolation.
What propels the book forward is a phase of intense, even obsessive genealogical research. Homes' "electronic dig" into her complex web of family history moves her story beyond the personal. In tracking her DNA, documents and family trees of biological and adoptive parents, she joins a community of researchers equally obsessed with excavating nature and nurture. Her perception of her situation shifts, her brilliant imagination takes fire, and she begins to engage with the broader realm of history.
She is "thrilled" to hear for the first time, at 44, her adoptive father's story of having as a boy seen 20,000 unemployed World War I veterans and their families march on Washington in 1932 demanding early payment of a cash bonus. "I feel as though I'm slowly reconstructing an ancient lost tapestry," she writes.
She handles her
biological father's serial rejection of her mother, of her and of her lawyer's
attempts to reach him in a section that consists of one side of a "deposition"
in which she frames all the damning questions she wants to pose. Finally, almost
sweetly, she settles into a coda, a section called "My Grandmother's Table," in
which she reconnects with her adoptive grandmother and meditates upon a future
"The Mistress's Daughter" does not end like most of Homes' fictions. At the end of this book, a dark journey rife with betrayal and calumny, the heroine is, it seems, redeemed by love.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire," a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.