Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Mistress's Daughter

Reviews keep calling A. M. Homes's new memoir, The Mistress's Daughter, riveting. And the first half of it is -- Homes describes how her loopy and desperate birth mother gets in touch with her after thirty years, and how Homes attempts to avoid her. If Homes seems a little, well, callous, who can judge her? She saves her fiercest wrath for her biological father, whom she names in the book and whose ass she describes. He may or may not deserve this treatment, but it was hard for me not to feel bad for him, which can't possibly be what the author intends.

So that bit, with all of its bitterness and fury, is indeed riveting -- like a drive-by shooting.

But then there's a long stretch of Homes imagining her mother's life, and an even longer trek through Homes's biological family history, and then a brief but sweetly sentimental evocation of her adopted grandmother and the pleasures of motherhood. These pages are haunted by an invisible person: Homes's adopted mother. Who is she? She's mentioned throughout the book, but barely described. I suppose Homes didn't want to write about her, but a reader can't help but think about her, a lot.

Memoirs have two layers: what the writer intends to say about her life, and what she doesn't say, but what comes across anyway. In this book it's difficult to separate the two, because Homes clearly wants to strip the genre of its pleasing nuggets of received wisdom and its easy conventions. But does she mean to sound so mean? Maybe she does, and maybe it's my own queasiness with brutal honesty that's the problem.

Or maybe there's no problem at all. After all, I read the whole thing.

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