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The Mistress's Daughter

Family drama plays out in unconventional fashion.

By John Freeman

Memoir Review

"The Mistress's Daughter." By A.M. Homes.
Viking. 237 pages. $24.95.
Verdict: A jagged, searching story.

It used to be that American novelists wrote about society or the so-called Great American Dream. In the late 20th century, though, family became the most popular, overarching focus of this country's fiction. And no one has carried us into the 21st century quite like A.M. Homes.

Book by book, Homes has expanded our notion of the family's boundary altogether. In her 1989 debut, "Jack," a teenager struggling to grow up learns his father is gay. In her second novel, "In a Country of Mothers" (1993), a therapist begins to think her patient is the long-lost daughter she gave up for adoption.

When that novel was published, Homes deflected questions about its autobiographical roots. But as she reveals in "The Mistress's Daughter," readers' hunches were correct. An adopted child, Homes never knew the true nature of her roots —- until they came back to confront her face to face.

Almost 15 years ago —- when Homes was 31 —- her birth mother tracked her down and made it known, through the lawyer who handled Homes' off-the-books adoption, "that if you wanted to contact her, she'd be willing to hear from you."

As Homes writes, the sting of this passive-aggressive approach soon bled into curiosity. She recalls fantasizing that her mother was a glamour puss diva, a free spirit. "I pictured Audrey Hepburn," she writes.

Actually, Homes' birth mother was a heavily medicated neurotic with a lifetime of regret. "I have never married," she writes to Homes in letters, and "I have always felt guilty about giving this little girl away."

Homes was the offspring of her mother's affair with a married man. Getting any details was not easy. Homes hired a private investigator and then became an amateur detective herself, phoning old friends and acquaintances of her birth mother. She tracked down her father and found him a big, bluff blowhard with a weird penchant for meeting his long-lost daughter in hotel rooms —- as if they were having an affair.

As in Daniel Mendelsohn's recent memoir, "The Lost," here is a family drama as a kind of emotional detective story. The first half of "The Mistress's Daughter," much of which appeared in The New Yorker, unfolds speedily, in briskly paced scenes.

The second half confronts how this information changed Homes' sense of herself, a more complicated and fraught story.

As a novelist, Homes is a connoisseur of narratives, but as an individual she has never felt she possessed one of her own. And so, naturally the first thing Homes did was try to graft her life story onto that of her parents' narratives.

When that didn't work, she began researching the lives of her maternal and paternal grandparents. When their stories were vague or unsatisfactory, Homes looked to other, newly discovered blood relatives for clues about who she is, where she comes from.

Homes dramatizes this search on the page by adopting a variety of styles and genre conventions. The book's opening section reads like noir, another chapter feels like fiction. One late tour-de-force chapter unfolds entirely as a series of questions addressed to her increasingly hard-to-reach biological father.

Readers who demand of their books a kind of stylistic unity will be jarred by "The Mistress's Daughter," with its frequent shifts in style and voice, its narrative pivots and redirections. But those who are willing to follow Homes will be amply rewarded.

This is a truthful, agonizing story of one woman's search for a narrative life raft. When it's stolen out from beneath her again —- as we know it will be —- Homes does what she has been doing all along as a novelist: She builds her own.