The Mistress's Daughter Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Apr 5 2007
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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.
*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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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!
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