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The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes

August 2, 2012

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I often use Homes’ writing (I read The Safety of Objects, Things You Should Know and The End of Alice in 2003, Music for Torching in 2004) in the classes I teach as an example of a strong voice. It has an electricity that propels the reader forward. Her characters are wild and sometimes desperate, her themes often unsettling. Everything she writes has an underlying courage, but this book is probably her most courageous.

The Mistress’s Daughter is a memoir of Homes’ relation to her family. She was given up for adoption at birth. Her mother was seventeen, her father an older, married man with a family. When she is contacted by her biological mother thirty years later, she begins a search for her identity. This is a bracingly honest account of that search and the inner turmoil it causes.

These real-life characters, including Homes herself, are as vivid, a-symmetrical, conflicted and unsettled as her fictional characters. Her mother is eccentric, needy, but in the end lovable. Her father serves the role of villain, a man who makes generous promises but is too self-centered to actually give anything of himself. Everyone is held at arm’s length by each other, unsure of how to interact with this family that isn’t family, unable to meet the others’ needs.

As always, Homes’ writing is razorblade sharp. There is one section that drags a bit relative to the rest—when Homes searches further back in her genealogy and the present-day relationships move backstage for a bit. But overall, this memoir is as strong as Homes’ works of fiction.

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