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Review of "The Mistress's Daughter"

By A. M. Homes
Penguin, 2007
Review by Christian Perring on Jul 22nd 2008
The Mistress's Daughter

AM Homes is well known for her stories of dysfunctional middle class life.  They are wry, compassionate, and slightly distanced tales.  The very name she uses as author, AM Homes, does not use her first name, Amy.  So the publication of a New Yorker piece about her experience as an adopted child meeting her birth mother, and the subsequent publication of this longer memoir reflecting on her relation to her biological relatives, was somewhat surprising.  It had seemed that she was a very private person, yet she discusses her adoptive family, her biological parents, and her own feelings in some detail.  On the other hand, she keeps most of her own current personal life out of the book, and says very little about her childhood.  At the end of the book she does say that she herself, as a single woman, adopted her own child, but she says nothing about the experience of being a mother.  So it is a very selective work, which leaves Homes still a rather mysterious figure. 

The initial story is simple enough.  When Homes was in her early 30s, she visited her family for Christmas 1992, and her parents told her that her birth mother had tried to contact her.  She is upset by this turn of events, and her parents worry whether they should have told her.  Her reaction is striking: she says of course they had to tell her, because it was not their information to keep.  That is fair enough, but Homes's attitude is nevertheless somewhat dismissive of her parents concerns, and those concerns turn out to be reasonable.  Homes's mother turns out to be a difficult clinging person who Homes ends up avoiding.  Her father turns out to be difficult in his own way, being at first cooperative and then evasive and distant.  Much of The Mistress's Daughter is a tale of emotional difficulty, and one wonders whether it was worth it.  However, it seems that the experience did leave Homes with a strong desire to know about her family, and her experience, however difficult, did satisfy some basic need she had. 

The writing of the book comes in different styles for the different parts.  The first part, recounting the events of the 1990s, up to her mother's unexpected death, is mostly conversational.  The second part is about the events in the next decade, when Homes starts to investigate her family history, starting with going through her mother's belongings and then starting to genealogical research.  This second portion of the book is heavier going, with a great deal of information about the past, and the efforts that Homes makes to find the information.  Here her anger towards her father comes across more strongly, as he refuses to even respond to her questions except going through his lawyer.  There's a rather bizarre section in which she fantasizes all the question a lawyer would ask her father in deposition.  The book is more interesting when she muses on the meaning of her biological family and adoption, and although she is often eloquent on the subject, the reader also ends up with the impression that she has strongly mixed feelings. 

Judging from readers' comments at Amazon.com, Holms's book inspires a wide variety of reactions.  Some love it, and others hate it.  This book might particularly appeal to people who are adopted themselves, or who are interested in the psychological issues around researching one's genealogy and finding one's place in one's family.

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.