FORTUNE'S DAUGHTER. By Alice Hoffman. Putnam. 268 pp. $15.95.
IT IS NOT JUST love that fills the space between mothers and daughters, but history. The daughter makes a certain gesture which takes the mother into her own forgotten past. Lines begin to pleat the skin around the mother's mouth and the daughter sees her own aging. Sometimes the connection is a comfort, at others it's as irritating as being mocked by a funhouse mirror.
But even if we break the connection, we can't float free, as Alice Hoffman tells us in Fortune's Daughter. At 18, Lila, actress, fortune teller, psychic, "whose hair was so thick she had to brush it twice a day with a wire brush made in France" gives birth to an illegitimate baby girl. The baby is wrapped in a towel and taken out into a cold New York night to become someone else's daughter. Over the years, the lost baby fills Lila's mind as completely as it once filled her body. She lets herself slide back to a past where "she could hear her baby breathing as it slept in the dresser drawer," even though, she warns herself, "The past . . . could swallow you up entirely, leaving nothing but a few fragile bones, a silver bracelet, ten moon- shaped fingernails."
While the past surrounds Lila, the future reaches for the novel's other female protagonist, Rae. For seven years, Rae has followed her boyfriend Jessup across the country. When they bump to a stop in Los Angeles, Jessup, with no place left to leave, leaves Rae who "had been waiting so long for something to go wrong between them that it took a while before she realized that it already had."
Rae, pregnant, tries to claim Lila's help. But the reality of Rae's baby is a threat. "Lila could almost see inside Rae to the baby she was carrying. Its eyes were closed, but it was moving its fingers, making a fist, then letting go . . . Beside this baby Lila's own child grew more ghostly."
There is a magic, mystical quality to Alice Hoffman's writing. Here the mind retrieves what the body has lost so that the phantom scent of her mother's perfume infuses Rae's apartment until, "she found herself searching through the closets and kneeling to peer under the bed -- and there were times when she actually believed she might find someone hiding." And Lila, making love for the last time with her married lover, conceives his child as she leaves him behind: "She could see herself on the couch with Stephen -- her arms and legs covered with a watery film, her mouth wide open. It seemed a pity for Stephen to think she was there with him. Up in the air she was weightless, and her hair turned into feathers that were so black you couldn't see them against tonight. That was when the light entered here and as it did Lila could see the future. It unfolded to her cell by cell, second by second. At first she thought she heard the rapid flapping of a bird struggling for flight, but when Lila listened closely she knew it was the sound of another heart beating."
HOFFMAN'S MAGIC isn't witches and warlocks, but real people in an intensity of grief. Hannie, who teaches Lila to tell fortunes, tells her how in her village in Russia mothers who had lost a child were locked in a separate house to mourn and then, at the end of a week, the house was burned down. "The woman inside always ran out to join the others, although sometimes it was not until the very last minutes, just before the cottage collapsed. . . . It was in this way that the mother discovered that she still had the will to live." Lonely, stuck with the secret of themselves, they reach out because, as Rae says of Jessup, "she had once imagined she could see past his skin to a thin band of light."
Hoffman is a marvelous writer with a painter's eye who takes the landscape of ordinary people experiencing ordinary emotions and colors them in unexpected ways. Rae's mother tells her daughter that, "'When I was pregnant with you I bought a pair of red high heels made in Italy . . . sometimes when I was alone I put them on and just wore them around the house. That's the reason you have red hair.'
"'What if you had worn purple shoes?' Rae challenged.
"'You would have had black hair that was so dark it would look nearly purple at night.'
"'Green?' Rae asked.
"'Pale blond hair that turned green every time you swam in a pool with any chlorine in it.'"
The people in Fortune's Child are like neighbors knocking on your door, wearing gaudy, unexpected costumes. They startle you into noticing them anew, so that when, at the end of the book, Lila takes Rae's baby a cake into which she has "baked three gifts: a cool hand to test for fevers, a kiss with the power to chase away nightmares, a heart that can tell when it's time to let go," those familiar sentiments, far from seeming banal, are new.