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The Mistress's Daughter

Novelist sears birth parents in memoir

By N. Heller McAlpin

The Mistress's Daughter
By A.M. Homes
VIKING; 238 Pages; $24.95 

In 2004, A.M. Homes published a personal essay in the New Yorker about meeting her biological parents 12 years earlier, at 31. It was, in its way, as startling and riveting as her fiction. That is saying a lot. Homes' fearless, disturbing novels include "The End of Alice," about an imprisoned pedophile, and "Music for Torching," about a couple who burn down their house for the insurance.

"The Mistress's Daughter" encompasses her eponymous essay, significantly expanded. Although the core essay is the most powerful part of the book, curious readers will appreciate additional material that delves deeper into Homes' roots and the fallout from adoption in general. Her discomfort in writing an autobiography seeps through the later chapters; we feel her effort and teeth-clenched determination to complete this project.

In 2004, Homes protected her parents' identities with pseudonyms, although her biological mother had been dead for six years. The wraps are now off. Her birth mother was Ellen Ballman, who became pregnant at 22 after a seven-year affair with her married, older boss, Norman Hecht. He had been stringing her along with promises of marriage for years, but then dropped her completely. His wife gave birth to their third child shortly before Homes was born, in December 1961.

Homes captures the shock of meeting these intimate strangers for the first time. She describes the seismic jolt to her life in a novelist's terms: "The fragile, fragmented narrative, the thin line of the story, the plot of my life, has been abruptly recast." She adds, "There is a deep fracture in my thoughts, a refrain constantly echoing: I am not who I thought I was, and I have no idea who I am."

Ellen is a pathetic, needy woman whose development seems to have been arrested in late adolescence, searching for someone to mother her rather than the reverse. She stalks her long-lost daughter at book readings, whines on the phone, expects Valentine's Day gifts. Homes comments, "The more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up. I can't imagine having grown up with her. I would not have survived."

When Ellen dies of kidney disease at 60, Homes writes movingly of "the profound loss of a piece of myself that I never knew, a piece that I pushed away because it was so frightening."

The story of Homes' birth and private adoption is not unique. Tales such as hers have received lighter treatment in novels, including Elinor Lipman's "Then She Found Me." More significantly, Ann Fessler interviewed scores of Ellens for her recent gut-wrenching book, "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade." One wishes Fessler's book had been available to Homes before she met her biological mother, as it might have given her a more sympathetic understanding of what Ellen endured at a time when single mothers were shamed into relinquishing their babies.

In searing prose, Homes addresses the powerlessness and deracination that are the general lot of those surrendered children: "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."

As the product of what she determines was "a sex life, not a relationship," Homes vents her anger at Norman, whose dark hair, dimples and body shape she inherited.

Norman pressures Homes to do a DNA test and refuses to give her a copy of the positive results when, after years of "electronic digs" researching her ancestry on the Internet, she decides to join the Daughters of the American Revolution as a way to claim her heritage.

Hell hath no fury like a daughter scorned and "denied my right to own my own identity." We can't help cheering as Homes fantasizes angry letters and a scathing deposition of this selfish, thoughtless man who wanted the evidence of his bad behavior to go away, and stay away. Furious and grief-stricken that he is subjecting her to the same dismissive brush-off he gave Ellen, Homes writes, "My mother had no life after she gave me up -- she never married, never had another family. She had invested in him from a very early age -- he used her and then said goodbye. She never recovered."

Woe unto shameful parents whose offspring grow up to become writers. Like Paula Fox's "Borrowed Finery," "The Mistress's Daughter" is a lacerating memoir in which the formerly powerless child triumphs with the help of a mighty pen.

And triumph Homes does. Not only does she have her successful literary career, but, as she indicates in her surprisingly sentimental coda, she also has her family: not just her adoptive brother and parents, but memories of her inspirational adoptive grandmother, plus her very own "biological echo" -- a daughter.

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