Looking on the darkest side of life, with no hope of redemption at last

April 22, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

The Mistress's Daughter

By A.M. Homes

Viking / 240 pages / $24.95

Some writers focus on the dark, rather than light, side of the human condition. Such writers achieve their narrative clarity from revealing the secrets and lies people tell themselves and each other, in exploring the hidden, rather than the obvious. Some of our greatest American fiction writers - F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates - have attended to that milieu in which redemption is rarely, if ever, accessed and despair is often the end as well as the beginning.

A.M. Homes has built her reputation on revisiting that same territory. As Cheever did in Falconer and Bullet Park, Homes entered suburbia in The End of Alice, Music for Torching and The Safety of Objects, and there found catastrophe. The claustrophobic nature of Homes' writing unsettles even as it lures.

Interviewers have tried to pigeonhole the obsessively private Homes - unsuccessfully. The Internet is rife with her terse, almost rude replies to reporters' queries about the origin of her work and whether or not it is autobiographical.

Thus it was almost shocking when in 2004 she published a long piece in The New Yorker about those hitherto private origins.

The Mistress's Daughter includes and builds on that piece to form a memoir of sorts, an examination of the dark side of Homes's own suburban family.

Homes was adopted - only days old - into a secular Jewish family in suburban Maryland in 1961. Her parents had recently lost one of their two sons to congenital kidney disease; Bruce was only nine when he died and while his death was not unexpected, the couple were devastated. Homes, it seems, was meant to fill a familial void left by his dying. There were supposed to be two children, not just one.

In 1992, when Homes was 31 and home for a holiday, her adoptive parents - she had known for years that she was adopted - informed her that their attorney had been contacted by Homes' biological mother, Ellen Ballman. The woman wanted to get in touch with her, to meet her.

The journey that this initial contact sets the author upon is not unlike the stuff of her fiction. An unmarried 22-year-old, almost ludicrously naive woman, her mother had been a lover since she was a teenager of an older married man who ran the shop in which she had worked all those years. Like most married men, he promised to leave his wife - and other children - to be with her. He sends her to Florida to live, promising to join her soon. He never comes, she gets intolerably lonely, goes back home, has the baby and gives it up in a private - and rather sketchy - adoption.

Baby Girl Ballman then becomes Amy Michael Homes.

Many children in less-than-perfect families secretly wish to discover that they were adopted, that the DNA of their less-than-perfect parents is not shared, that somewhere "out there" is an adoring and perfect family separated from them only by bizarre circumstances beyond their control. But soon, soon, believes the beleaguered child, it will all be fixed and the matching DNA will reunite in a happy ending worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Homes doesn't write happy endings, however, and her own story is no different from her others. Ballman is not the soignee super mom she envisioned for decades. Rather she is a chain-smoking harridan who doesn't read, is obsessive about her lost daughter and drinks Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry. Ballman isn't even remotely what Homes had dreamed of; she is almost a caricature of what Homes wouldn't want in a mother. Again and again after her first telephone contact with Ballman, Homes recognizes how fortunate she was to have grown up with the parents who adopted her and how different her life would have been had she been raised by Ballman.

That realization provides no comfort, however. In fact there is no comfort whatsoever in this dark and deeply unsettling exploration of how Homes came to be. There are questions, there are answers, but there is no debriding of the wound of her loss. There is only more wound.

Homes seeks out her birth father - Norman Hecht - a well-to-do businessman who balks at introducing her to the rest of his family (her four half-siblings) and demands she take a DNA test. It's a smarmy scene and Homes makes it more so by describing the events in a sexual way - the needle that takes her blood, her focus on her father's behind. It all - down to the heat of the day and the sweat on the brow - has the air of Hubert Selby about it. As does her brief stalking of her birth father's family, even as her birth mother is stalking her.

There is no resolution. Homes retreats from her newfound mother, who dies in 1998 of kidney failure. She never truly connects with her birth father (a dreadful creature as she depicts him). She is unmoored by the evidence of the past she never had, yet has - unwittingly, unwillingly and yet relentlessly - uncovered.

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