On A.M. Homes’ The Mistress’ Daughter

A.M. Homes’ January 2005 New Yorker essay on meeting her biological parents for the first time while in her early thirties is a fine piece of writing — absurd, disturbing, and adamantly unsentimental.

In a waiting room, as she watches her father turn in paperwork for the blood test she’s agreed to undergo, she notices “that his butt looks familiar; I am watching him, and I’m thinking: There goes my ass. That’s my ass walking away. . . . This is the first time I’ve seen anyone else in my body.”

But while Homes is trying to discover something about herself through her parents, they’re busy projecting everyone else onto her: “Ellen thinks I’m her mother, Norman thinks I am Ellen, and I feel like Norman’s wife thinks I am the mistress reincarnate.”

Being adopted, Homes has told an interviewer, “causes a dislocation, a kind of fracture that disrupts things.”

Her new memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, mirrors this fractured quality. The first part of the book largely tracks the essay, which holds up well on second reading — so well that it could almost stand alone as a slim volume.

But Homes expects knowing her biological parents to mean something, and the rest of the book is devoted to figuring out what that something is. The tone is detached, shading into brittle. You’ll find the same kind of cool exterior masking the same kind of bubbling rage in much of Homes’ fiction, but, as is the case with Hilary Mantel (whose fiction I’m mad for), what can make for narrative economy and restraint in a novel or short story reads differently in autobiography.

“I found myself weirdly disliking AM during the book,” someone told me. “That can’t be normal in a memoir, can it?” I didn’t feel dislike, exactly, but I did feel very distant from Homes — and coinsiderably more sympathetic toward her adoptive parents than she allows herself to be.

In the latter sections, Homes copes with her father’s rejection. She sifts through her mother’s things. She spends hours searching genealogical records online.

The memoir in its contemporary iteration seems to demand a Triumphant Conclusion. Homes, to her credit, mostly sidesteps this trap, focusing on her adopted grandmother. The result is a muted finale honoring the mystery of family.


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