The Mistresss Daughter by A.M. Homes

Christopher Kelly
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Adoptee finds she suddenly needs truth when past surfaces in The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes.

The Mistress's Daughter

Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 0670038385
Author: A.M. Homes
Price: $24.95
Length: 240
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-04

In December 2005, the novelist and short story writer A.M. Homes (The End of Alice, The Safety of Objects) published a personal essay in The New Yorker about how, more than a decade earlier, the birth mother she never knew began trying to seek her out. Events did not proceed happily: The woman stalked Homes at book signings and called her apartment repeatedly, begging her daughter to allow her into her life; the birth father wanted nothing to do with the situation; Homes felt her own life quickly slipping out of her control.

The author recounted all of this in crisp, clipped, almost Joan Didion-like prose -- the article read as if it had been written in a state of shell shock. The style only strengthened the central theme of the work: Namely that, with just a single phone call, our lives can be immediately, irrevocably plunged into confusion and existential despair. Deep down, none of us "really" knows who we are.

Homes' New Yorker article has been expanded into a book-length memoir, The Mistress's Daughter. Despite a few missteps, it proves even more affecting and illuminating than the magazine piece. Beginning a few days before Christmas in 1992, when Homes' adoptive parents sit her down to tell her "Someone is looking for you," the book charts an often sad, sometimes spooky journey. Homes had long known that she was adopted, but she never fully understood the details about who her birth parents were. The fact that this mysterious, possibly unstable woman named Ellen wants to insert herself into Homes' life shakes the author to her core.

But -- probably like many adopted children once they enter early adulthood -- Homes soon becomes obsessed with reclaiming the identity she never really knew. She reaches out to her birth father, Norman, a former college football player who's now a successful businessman with a family of his own. First, he seems to want to get to know her, but soon he grows suspicious and even vindictive -- demanding a DNA test, the results of which he refuses to report to her.

Later, Homes gets drawn into the world of genealogical research, spending months trying to trace her family background. For reasons even she doesn't entirely understand, she becomes determined to join the Daughters of the American Revolution -- something she can only do if Norman is willing to hand over those DNA results.

Homes' fiction sometimes comes off as a little too studied and willfully quirky, but here she's speaking straight from the heart, and the story's strange twists feel completely organic -- the actions of a complex, tortured main character. Some of the passages carry on too long, including a section where Homes takes an inventory of her birth mother's belongings (Ellen died in 1998); and one of the chapters -- in which Homes imagines Norman being legally deposed, because she's thinking of suing him to prove his paternity -- is entirely ill-conceived, a Creative Writing 101 stunt that should have been cut from the book.

But the triumph of The Mistress's Daughter is that it never turns parochial or self-absorbed, despite the specificity of Homes' story, and despite her novelistic tendencies to wax philosophic about mundane, probably meaningless details, like the list of prescription drugs Ellen took before her death. Homes draws out the universality of her own experience. She shows us that -- whether we were adopted or not -- we can never possibly understand where we're headed if we don't first figure out where we've come from.





The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.


Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.


'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.


10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.


'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.


The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.