This month we have something for everyone: a literary memoir from acclaimed novelist A.M. Homes; a taut, sexy thriller from Nicola Griffith; and a collection of comics about adolescence edited by former L Word writer Ariel Schrag.
The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes (Viking)
Growing up in an adopted family, A.M. Homes always knew she came from “somewhere else, started as someone else.” Her upbringing was complex for several reasons. Though the family that raised her was loving, they were still mourning the loss of another child when Homes came into their lives, and early on she felt it was her role to heal their grief. As a child, she imagined her birth mother as an Audrey Hepburn type, beautiful and sophisticated, “ruler of the world, except for one missing link — me.”
In The Mistress’s Daughter, Homes’ recent memoir, she recounts why the fantasy of her birth parents failed to hold when she finally met them and how the experience dramatically altered the course of her life.
Instead of Hepburn, Homes finds Ellen Ballman, a woman who was either “of limited intelligence or shockingly naïve,” and discovers that she is the child of an affair. Her birth father, Norman Hecht, requests a DNA test, but after the results come back positive, he breaks his promise of introducing her to his — and her — family.
The book is divided into two sections. The first part, a straightforward narrative, tells the story of how Homes came to be adopted and Ellen’s forceful attempt to re-enter her life after 31 years.
Their phone conversations move from “flirty as a first date” to Ellen calling and suggesting that Homes commit suicide because she didn’t think to send a Valentine’s Day card. Ellen’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable — she vacillates from asking to be adopted to treating Homes like the child she never knew. “She is in stopped time,” Homes writes, “filled with fantasies of what might have been.”
Homes’ relationship with her birth father is equally complex. When they first meet face to face, one of the first things he tells her is that he is not circumcised. While Homes is initially confused, she later sees this as an attempt to remove himself from his Jewish ancestry. He treats her exactly as she imagines he treated Ellen, keeping their relationship a secret, maintaining all of the control.
Homes is known for being elusive about her sexuality, though she does touch lightly on the subject during two conversations with her father. The first comes when he asks about “her people,” her adopted family. After explaining that they are lovely, she thinks: “I owe him nothing. My people are Jews, Marxists, Socialists, homosexuals. There is nothing about me, about my life, that he would understand.”
Later, he notices that she doesn’t wear jewelry, and she senses his judgment: “I am single, I live in New York City, I am not wearing a dress. I know exactly what he is thinking.”
Throughout this first section, Homes sustains her distinct ability to focus on the dark and painful realities of the experience. Many of the scenes are haunting, including one where she meets Norman in a hotel lobby and pictures Ellen in the same position. “I imagine him f—— me. I imagine being Ellen and him f—— her thirty-one years ago. I imagine something profoundly sad. It is the strangest set of imaginings and I can tell he has them too.”
The second part of the book is drastically different. It takes place seven years after Ellen has passed away and Homes last spoke to Norman. She had collected boxes of Ellen’s personal effects after the funeral and is now ready to face the task of unpacking. In the process, she is infused with a newfound energy to explore her ancestry — both biological and adoptive — and it is here that she finally begins to find her place.
The Mistress’s Daughter raises questions about how we define family and how our families define us. In the end, Homes honors both her adoptive grandmother and her birth daughter as a way, it seems, to show the undeniable significance of both nature and nurture.