by Ayelet Waldman
Published by Sourcebooks
352 pages, 2003
Minefield of Motherhood
Reviewed by David Abrams
Every so often, established genre writers announce they're going to cross literary boundaries with their next book, trying something as unexpected as Michael Jordan swinging a golf club. Results vary wildly -- from Stephen King penning a story in the vein of To Kill a Mockingbird (the tight, satisfying "The Body") to John Grisham's attempt at the same (the sloppy, sappy A Painted House). Nonetheless, genre readers usually like to keep their favorite authors neatly tucked into pigeonholes.
Fans of Ayelet Waldman -- author of the quirky Mommy Track mysteries -- better be prepared to seal up those pigeonholes. With her new non-mystery novel, Daughter's Keeper, Waldman breaks into the field of so-called literary fiction (though one could argue she's been quite literate all along). Readers expecting the snappy, quippy humor of the Mommy Track books (A Playdate With Death, Death Gets a Time-Out, et al), might be disappointed. There's nary a laugh to be found on these 350 pages.
But that's OK because Waldman's intent is a serious one as she tells the story of a family caught in the web of a flawed criminal justice system. The author's background as a Harvard Law School grad and federal public defender serve her well as she weaves the convincing tale of 22-year-old Olivia Goodman who's arrested after she drives her boyfriend, illegal Mexican immigrant Jorge, to a drug deal. Even though Olivia didn't really know what was going on and even though she's tried to persuade Jorge not to get mixed up with the wrong crowd, she's slapped with a drug conspiracy charge.
Eventually, Olivia is forced to turn to the one person she didn't want to depend on: her mother. Single mom Elaine Goodman has had a strained relationship with her daughter practically from the start. She's remained emotionally aloof to everyone -- her daughter, her new boyfriend and her employees at the neighborhood pharmacy she owns in Oakland, California.
For her part, Olivia has turned antagonistic and rebellious, dropping out of college and traveling to Mexico where she meets Jorge, a political activist who eventually shows up at her doorstep. Things get really complicated when, after her arrest and she's abandoned by Jorge, Olivia learns she's pregnant. Once again, she'll be forced to depend on her mother for help.
Though it's slow to develop (the characters are, at first, off-putting and unlikable), Daughter's Keeper really starts to take off around page 100. By that point, Waldman has snagged both our attention and our hearts as we become fully engaged in the tangle of the court system, which is mirrored in the equally complicated family dynamics.
Elaine is an odd bird -- she keeps her feelings locked up tight, she keeps her spine rigid, she keeps a house so obsessively clean she even dries her kitchen sponges in the microwave. It's no wonder Olivia has felt like a rubber ball bouncing off the wall of her mother's heart.
We can feel the tension between Olivia and Elaine from the very first paragraph. (The mother studied the menu, ignoring her daughter's expression. Perhaps she was so accustomed to the girl's sneer that it was no longer even remarkable to her). Like the rest of the writing in this and her other books, Waldman hones right in on her characters, slipping into their skin with the mark of a writer who listens -- the kind of person who's spent a lifetime sponging up conversations around her.
As in her Mommy Track mysteries, Waldman refuses to coat motherhood with a sugary veneer. From the start, Elaine is hardly a model parent and this, more than anything, lends the book its credibility:
She felt totally lost in the face of the unremittingness of Olivia. No matter how many diapers Elaine changed, the baby dirtied more. No matter how many bananas she pureed or bowls of cereal she mixed, the next day the baby was still hungry. Elaine had never realized that it was possible to feel stretched so thin, worked so hard, and yet at the same time -- there was no other possible word for it -- so bored. She found Olivia tedious. And to her surprise, considering the fact that she was never alone, she was achingly lonely.
And later, when she must take on new responsibilities as a grandmother, Elaine is forced to admit that she'd been a failure as a mother:
Somewhere along the line, very early on, she had decided that she would give Olivia only so much and no more. She had withheld herself, providing for her daughter, dressing her wounds, accomplishing the required routine tasks, as if mothering were itself a kind of mandatory minimum sentence, as if there were some minimum amount of love you were required to give your child, some minimum responsibility you were obliged to assume. Elaine had resented the vast extent of even that minimum, and had tried to limit it in any way she could. Her life as a mother had been a series of calculations, of estimations: what was required of her, what she could get away with, what she might avoid. Motherhood was a language that Elaine did not speak and had never bothered to learn.
Harsh and cold as those words might look on the page, I guarantee you that somewhere in America right now there are at least two or three mothers pausing mid-diaper change, raising a fist (which still grips a poop-smeared baby wipe), and shouting, "Yesss! She understands us!"
As the mother of four children herself, Waldman does understand the trials and tribulations of the stroller years, but more than that she knows what makes all of us tick -- young, old, teens, grandparents alike. Daughter's Keeper is not just about parental burnout or adolescent angst, it's about coming to grips with mistakes we've made, it's about turning corners in relationships, and it's about reconciliations that must sting before they can soothe. | October 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.