Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Mistress's Daughter

A M Homes, it seems, is a well-known American novelist, though I had not heard of her until I read a review of this book. This book is autobiographical, however.

Homes has always known that she was adopted, but it was only when she was 31 that her natural mother managed to trace her. The interest in this seems to come entirely from the mother. Homes makes contact and it soon becomes clear that the woman has problems. It seems that she is looking for love from the daughter who she abandoned immediately after birth, but the daughter does not feel it in her heart to give her this love. Also the mother seems to have little in common with her daughter's outlook, dressing for example in Barbie clothes, and sending gifts the daughter cannot do anything with. They meet only once. When the mother proposes to move to New York, the daughter gets the willies.

In the meantime Homes also gets in touch with her natural father, who, as such fathers go, had not told his family that he has another daughter. More to the point, he cannot bring himself to do so. He does however insist on a paternity test which proves that he is the father, and tells her that she is eligible to be a member of the 'Daughters of the revolution' organisation. When however many years later she asks him for a copy of the test, he refuses. She takes him to court over this - or does she?

Zadie Smith describes it as a 'furiously good book'. 'Furiously' is certainly right - the anger Homes feels at her father's rejection bounces off the page. There's also considerable anger with the mother who sees the daughter as only fulfilling her needs, without considering the daughter's needs. I had never thought about adopted children potentially having so much anger, but they certainly can have good reasons for this. It is also an extremely well-written book.

I find the structure a bit odd, though. Book 1 describes her initial contacts and meetings with her birth parents and subsequent events. Book 2 is a brief section about her mother where she tries to reconstruct her mother after her death, using documents she retrieved from the mother's home. The following section talks about her research into her birth parents' histories; this can be done quite easily via the internet, and she tracks herself back to the 16th century. This may be interesting to her, but I found it rather boring and irrelevant to the story.

The next section 'My father's ass' already suggests in its title that all is not well, and describes the difficulties she has 12 years after the first meeting of extracting a statement of paternity from him. Followed by an imagined cross-examination of dad in the court. Finally she writes wonderfully about her adoptive maternal grandmother and her daughter - but what's the relevance of this? Some of this feels rather like padding. In any case, it's quite a short book with the print well spaced out to fill 238 pages - easily read in a day.

It would be interesting to read some other books by Homes - apparently she is much published in the US.


varske said...

I hadn't heard of the author, but recently a review of the book popped up somewhere and there is an extract (of the imagined cross-examination) in the current Granta.

I must say it didn't make me want to read the rest, it was too full of anger.