two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
By: 
A. M. Homes
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-The Mistress’s DaughterIt took 31 years for A. M. Homes’s birth mother to track her down. The novelist and short-story writer knew from an early age that she was adopted, but like most adoptees, she knew nothing of the circumstances of her conception. Homes’s mother got pregnant by her married boss, which marked the culmination of a seven-year relationship between them. The rediscovery of her needy mother (who shows up at Homes’s book readings and harangues her on the phone) leads the author to track down her birth father, who insists she undergo a DNA test. The Mistress’s Daughter bluntly examines this dislocated family tree.
Viking. 240 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670038385

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Homes’ attempts to maintain her privacy, and her equally strong wish to be recognized by two people who it turns out are incapable of mirroring her, are poignant. Having been given up, then reclaimed, then asked to pony up a modicum of daughterly care, she withdraws." Jane Ciabattari

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In searing prose, Homes addresses the powerlessness and deracination that are the general lot of … surrendered children." Heller McAlpin

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though the quest seems, at times, overwrought as Homes searches for meaning and connection where there may not be any, the writing is consistently controlled and knowing. … Though Homes gives away some of her mystery with this book, she will gain further respect as a writer." Mark Lindquist

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The only chance such material—and there is a good deal of it—has of being interesting is when we as readers have a deep investment in the implications, when we care about the people whose hereditary trail this is. We don’t, alas—the distancing strategies of the first half of the memoir have ensured that." Sven Birkerts

Milwaukee Jrnl-Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Mistress’s Daughter, like most works of autobiography, succeeds because of the writer’s intimacy with her material, but also suffers from it. … In the end, you can’t help wondering how much of the story is sincere, and how much is for dramatic effect." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Like a diligent grad student or an amateur genealogist, she turns from people to paper, from dramatic scenes to a computer screen, from factual research to endless Googling. And in the process her memoir disperses into a pattern of unconnected dots, like a newspaper photograph held too close to the eye." Michael Mewshaw

Minneapolis Star Tribune 1 of 5 Stars
"Certainly being adopted can lead to anxiety and feelings of uncertain identity—as can divorce, blending of families, the early death of a parent, family secrets and a host of other imperfections on the shiny, porcelain face of ideal life. The problem is that Homes seems to think that this has never happened to anyone else." Emily Carter Roiphe

Critical Summary

Critics agree that the first part of A. M. Homes’s book, an expanded version of a 2004 New Yorker essay, is a riveting family story. Told in the same taut prose that gives her fiction (In a Country of Mothers, 1993; Music for Torching, 1999) its "stylish nihilism" (New York Times), The Mistress’s Daughter offers a straightforward, unblinking account of meeting—and facing—one’s birth parents for the first time. The mixed reviews stem from an equally mixed bag of reactions. A few critics decry the dramatic drop-off when Homes expands the scope of her genealogical research outside her two birth parents. Others find the author’s indignation and tightly controlled rage poignant. Homes treads the memoirist’s paper-thin line between self-discovery and egocentrism with marginal success.