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The Mistress's Daughter [Hardcover]

A. M. Homes
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

April 10 2007
An acclaimed novelist’s riveting memoir about what it means to be adopted and how all of us construct our sense of self and family

Before A.M. Homes was born, she was put up for adoption. Her birth mother was a twenty-two- year-old single woman who was having an affair with a much older married man with children of his own. The Mistress’s Daughter is the story of what happened when, thirty years later, her birth parents came looking for her.

Homes, renowned for the psychological accuracy and emotional intensity of her storytelling, tells how her birth parents initially made contact with her and what happened afterward (her mother stalked her and appeared unannounced at a reading) and what she was able to reconstruct about the story of their lives and their families. Her birth mother, a complex and lonely woman, never married or had another child, and died of kidney failure in 1998; her birth father, who initially made overtures about inviting her into his family, never did.

Then the story jumps forward several years to when Homes opens the boxes of her mother’s memorabilia. She had hoped to find her mother in those boxes, to know her secrets, but no relief came. She became increasingly obsessed with finding out as much as she could about all four parents and their families, hiring researchers and spending hours poring through newspaper morgues, municipal archives and genealogical Web sites. This brave, daring, and funny book is a story about what it means to be adopted, but it is also about identity and how all of us define our sense of self and family.


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From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Homes's searing 2004 New Yorker essay about meeting her biological parents 31 years after they gave her up for adoption forms the first half of this much-anticipated memoir, but the rest of the book doesn't match its visceral power. The first part, distilled by more than a decade's reflection and written with haunting precision, recounts Homes's unfulfilling reunions with both parents in 1993 after her birth mother, Ellen Ballman, contacted her. Homes (This Book Will Change Your Life,) learns that Ballman became pregnant at age 22, after being seduced by Norman Hecht, the married owner of the shop where Ballman worked. But Ballman's emotional neediness and the more upwardly mobile Hecht's unwillingness to fully acknowledge Homes as a family member shakes Homes's deepest sense of self. The rest of the memoir is a more undigested account of how Ballman's death pushed Homes to research her genealogy. Hecht's refusal to help Homes apply to the Daughters of the American Revolution based on their shared lineage elicits her "nuclear-hot" rage, which devolves into a list of accusing questions she would ask him about his life choices in a mock L.A. Law episode. The final chapter is a loving but tacked-on tribute to Homes's adoptive grandmother that may leave readers wishing the author had given herself more time to fully integrate her adoptive and biological selves. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Homes is a Tilt-a-whirl novelist who discloses ordinary existence's hidden bizarreness, most recently in This Book Will Save Your Life (2006). She now presents a can't-put-it-down memoir as remarkable for its crystalline prose, flinty wit, and agile candor as for its arresting revelations. Readers will recognize the true-life source of Homes' novel In a Country of Mothers (1993) as she recounts the fraught circumstances of her irregular adoption: baby Homes was handed over on the street like contraband. Homes knows nothing about her birth parents until she turns 31, and learns that her mother was only 17 when she and her married-with-children boss began an affair that abruptly ended when both his mistress and his wife became pregnant. Homes navigates distressing, often surreal interactions with the demanding strangers who provided her DNA. Then, after her mother's unnerving death, she embarks on an extensive genealogical quest to trace both biological and adopted bloodlines. Homes masterfully distills angst and discovery into a riveting tale of nature and nurture that encompasses America's great patchwork of immigrants and secrets; a double-helix legacy entwining Christian slaveholders with Jewish refugees; and, as she brings her daughter into the world, the evolution of women's lives. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Homes is great, this book less so Oct. 14 2007
Format:Hardcover
I absolutely enjoy most of Homes' writing. She's on my list of top ten reads by living authors. Thus I looked forward to The Mistress's Daughter. It's a book both autobiographical and not autobiographical telling the story of Homes' discovery of her biological mother and father, embellished, evidently, when necessary. The book is divided into two parts. In the first we get the narrative of her learning that her biological mother has contacted the lawyer and it trying to get in touch with the author. This part reads well, a bit on the schmaltzy side for Homes, but we let it slide because the subject is so close to her. There are moments of insight and tenderness, of conflicting emotions. We don't really feel that her history has been probed with any depth but the writing flows easily so we keep going. I read the first part in a single morning.

The second part of the book documents her genealogical searching. It's tough, non narrative, a collection of notes really, that Homes attempts to string together. She says it's all about narrative but it's not really and the sections that make up part two are pretty tedious and frankly boring. Every unhappy family may be unhappy in it's own way, but only relatives really care about their own genealogy. In addition the writing itself gets way too interrogatory. I didn't count but there must be hundreds of questions in this second part that really show little depth or humor or anything beyond the obvious.

I suppose it's not very PC to knock someone's digging into their own troubled and painful past. I'm not saying they don't deserve the opportunity. But in the final analysis, the entirety is more the stuff of diary entries that should have remained between those mini-locked pages. Half good, half not so good. See what you think.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  79 reviews
51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brutally honest and touching April 28 2007
By bookarts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While I think it is possible for anyone to appreciate the beautiful writing and the touching story of The Mistress's Daughter, it surely carries special meaning for adoptees. I am quite sure that I am not the only adoptee who nodded her head throughout the book as Homes articulated so many of the thoughts I have had about myself and my family through the years. Another reviewer complained that Homes was only speculating about her birth parent's lives in the second half of the book, yet that was exactly the point. After years with thousands of questions and no answers, adoptees who have met their birth parents are usually met with the disappointing realization that they will never have all the answers. The speculation never ends. Homes' book was note-perfect in capturing that and so many other aspects of the adoption experience. I usually give away my books after I read them, but I will be reading this one again.

I feel compelled to address one other issue. As an adoptee, I found one reviewer's headline, "A Case For Abortion", to be incredibly offensive. I am pro-choice, but telling an adoptee they should have been aborted simply because you don't like what they wrote is disgusting. I too question the motives of some of the negative reviewers, some of whom clearly did not read the book.
49 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Recommended April 10 2007
By Nancy J. Mumford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Interesting that the two negative reviews posted so far come from people in Washington - wonder who they are and how they are connected to the story??

I read this book in about 3 hours in one sitting and was absolutely fascinated. Rather than being a typical story of an adopted child who rediscovers her wonderful birth parents, A.M. Homes is truthful about her fears and the emotional rollercoaster this information sends her on. Her relationships with her newly discovered biological parents are unsatisfying for various reasons and she struggles with her feelings and definition of what a family is. I thought the book offered a very interesting perspective and was well done. Recommended!
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you love her fiction--you'll be further impressed April 6 2007
By subway reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I couldn't put down---I've been reading Homes work for many years--going back to her first novel Jack--and on through the terrifying End of Alice--the smart stories in Things You Should Know and last year's inspiring, This Book Will Save Your Life. Now Homes is letting us into her life--giving her readers the back story on who she is. And it's a real case of truth being stranger than fiction. I admire her for letting us in, for sharing the incredible sadness of finding out who her biological parents were--both of them seem soo incredibly self involved, narcisistic--in the end it's a good thing that Homes' was adopted by a family who seemed to truly "get" her and to support her artistic endeavors. This is a heartbreaking and wonderful read--and really informative for those of us who don't know the world of adoption--of searching and reunion with lost family. I really enjoyed the second half of the book--which takes the reader on a kind of wild ride though the land of internet geneology and search for self.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Reality of Adoption April 11 2007
By Lynn V. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was eagerly awaiting the release of this book. I just finished it and as an adoptee, I think A.M. Homes got the tone just right. She honestly deals with the feelings that are prevalent in many adoptees. Hers was an interesting story without the happy ending, but she seems to come away stronger for it and realize she is a composite of nature and nurture, not just a biological product of one set of parents. I agree that the second half is a little scattered and not as concise as in the brilliant first half, previously published in the New Yorker. As for those reviewers who criticized her "imaginings," that is pretty much all most adoptees have. There is little reality to their existence, just what they have been told. Recommended for adoptees, anyone who is struggling with identity issues or those who just appreciate an interesting story.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Turns on its head the conventional account of an adopted child May 29 2007
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A Google search of the term "genealogy" yields more than 47 million hits. With the growth of the Internet, it is indisputable that the impulse to trace one's ancestors has become a source of passionate engagement for many. Paralleling that phenomenon is the explosive popularity of the memoir genre. These trends converge with considerable power in A.M. Homes's frank and moving new memoir, THE MISTRESS'S DAUGHTER.

Recognized as a keen-eyed observer of contemporary society in her fiction (THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS, THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE), Homes shifts her vision inward with equal acuity in this work. During a visit to her adoptive parents in Washington, D.C. at Christmas 1992, she learns --- through the family lawyer who had arranged her private adoption in 1961 --- that her mother, Ellen Ballman, who gave birth to her at the age of 22, wants to make contact. Homes's birth was the culmination of a relationship Ellen had had with a married employer almost 20 years her senior.

At first, Homes's engagement with her mother is unsettling, as Ellen lurks around the fringes of the author's appearance at a Washington bookstore and peppers her with phone calls and letters. Their first real meeting, at New York's Plaza Hotel, is poignant, if awkward. After devouring a lobster dinner, Ellen seeks her daughter's forgiveness for giving her up. Homes readily grants it in that encounter, but tensions between them soon emerge. Ellen persists in reaching out to a child who is unwilling to reciprocate the feelings of a woman she considers strange and difficult.

Concealing the seriousness of her medical condition from her daughter, Ellen dies of kidney failure in 1998, and Homes waits until 2005 to open the four boxes of papers and personal effects she removes from her mother's house after her death. When she does, she discovers a bizarre assortment of materials that reveal a life combining incidents of petty crime with the struggle of a single woman simply to survive after her lover's devastating rejection and the loss of her child.

As needy as Ellen is, Homes paints an even more problematic picture of her father, Norman Hecht. He's a respected businessman and father of four, but, as portrayed by Homes, he's little more than a handsome, self-absorbed lout. Most of their encounters take place in hotel lobbies at his request, as if their own relationship has an illicit aspect to it. Shortly after their first meeting, Norman insists that they undergo DNA testing that reveals the near certainty of his paternity. Later, when Homes almost sheepishly applies for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, made possible by the English ancestry she traces to the mid-16th century through her paternal grandmother, Norman does everything possible to deny that he's her father.

Homes's prose is spare and uninflected, occasionally bringing to mind the work of Joan Didion ("To be adopted is to be adapted, to be amputated and sewn back together again. Whether or not you regain full function, there will always be scar tissue."). Repeatedly, she returns to this theme of brokenness or the absence of wholeness that has plagued her as a child of adoption. There is considerable emotion in the story's telling, but for the most part it bubbles below the surface of the narrative. The memoir's seriousness is leavened with occasional humor, most notably in Homes's account of Norman's difficulty finding an acceptable payment method for the DNA test.

Homes devotes her final chapter to a loving tribute to her adoptive mother's mother, a vibrant woman who died "unexpectedly" at the age of 99. She writes movingly of her grandmother's inspiration that resulted in Homes giving birth to a daughter at the age of 41, after two years of considerable effort. Somehow it seems fitting that this unusual family saga will continue at least into one more generation.

What gives this memoir its originality and emotional force is that it turns on its head the conventional account of an adopted child on a quest to find her birth parents and instead offers the story of an adult involuntarily introduced to them when they re-enter her life. Despite her initial lack of inclination to discover her roots, Homes finds the journey she's launched on by her birth parents' unexpected appearance a transformative and ultimately rewarding one. In the end, she offers a fitting benediction to this flawed and all-too-human pair: "Did I choose to be found? No. Do I regret it? No. I couldn't not know."

--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
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