HER MOTHER'S DAUGHTER By Marilyn French Summit. 686 pp. $21.95
FOR YEARS men have repeated this old saw when assessing the women they might want to marry: "If you want to know how a woman will age, look at her mother." It is a notion that would no doubt be rejected by most contemporary women -- and rightly so, smacking as it does of male arrogance and ownership and heedless of the fact that our mothers provide only half our genes -- and yet no doubt many of us have been surprised to find ourselves in middle age, no matter how "liberated" we thought ourselves to be, not so much looking like our mothers as acting like them, feeling somehow depressed, angry, unhappy. Such is the realization that confronts Anastasia Stevens, the protagonist of Marilyn French's Her Mother's Daughter.
French's previous novels, The Women's Room and The Bleeding Heart, garnered large audiences, especially among women, despite critics who sometimes found her prose less than graceful, her characters stereotypical and her solutions to their problems too easy. Women felt French was telling the truth about their lives, and that same audience will, I believe, embrace Her Mother's Daughter.
Its protagonist, known professionally as "Stacey Stevens," is a woman of about 50 who has had a glamorous and noteworthy career as a photographer, much of it with a magazine called World (read Life). She has had fame, some money, two husbands and many lovers and has raised three children with relative success, yet she finds herself vaguely, inexplicably unhappy and has given up the possibility of finding love, even denying that she wants it. For some time now she has been listening to stories of her mother's childhood and youth, feeling that under them "there was something buried, something hidden, something I could discover if I persisted that would make all the difference." Her mother, she suspects, has always felt something like a midge, which does not lay eggs but reproduces its young in its own tissues, the young eventually devouring the mother's entire body and leaving behind only a chitinous shell. ("Midge mothers may sacrifice themselves for their young, but the young never have to hear about it.") Anastasia wonders why she has since early childhood been so obsessed with her mother's life: "Listening, putting myself into her, becoming her, becoming my grandmother, losing myself, as if I could once and finally lose myself inside my mother, and in the process give her the strength and hope she needs. Return the liquids I drained from her, become a midge mother in return, mothering my own mother."
THE NOVEL, then, begins as Anastasia's attempt to understand her mother's life and hence her own. And her mother, Belle, has indeed had a difficult life. When she was 9, her tyrannical, brutal father, a Polish immigrant, died suddenly, leaving his wife and four children destitute. Belle's mother was forced to go to work in a sweatshop and temporarily had to put three of her children in an orphanage. Interestingly enough, Belle was the child she choose to keep, but the girl nevertheless felt unloved and somehow guilty, as though she may pay for being chosen. But Belle kept her troubles to herself and tried to make her mother happy by taking on most of the housekeeping responsibilities, dreaming all the while of being a little girl named Anastasia who lived in a fine home with parents who loved her, a little girl who had long gold curls and plenty of dresses. In the process she hardened her heart, coming to believe that love will hurt you, that all men are brutal and that they are good only for providing an income. This is a lesson she will teach her own daughter, Anastasia, a child whose impending birth forces Belle into marriage and the relinquishing of her dreams of being an artist.
Like her mother, Anastasia will feel unwanted and unloved, guilty for having been born, something that Belle cannot understand since she has been so careful to give her daughter everything she didn't have -- except, of course, "that close embrace" -- in Polish, moja kochanie. For her part, Anastasia recognizes this: "The truth is it is not the sins of the fathers that descend into the third generation, but the sorrows of the mothers. But when I was a young woman, I believed that I could break this chain by sheer will." What Anastasia comes to learn in the course of writing this book is that, for all her rebelliousness and her "living like a man," she has been more deeply bound to this sorrow than she had known. Not only has she been transferring this legacy to her own children, she has been dying emotionally -- and eventually almost dying physically -- as though her death would be an expiation of her guilt.
This is a story that will, as I said earlier, appeal to many women, and it is in many respects a compelling one. Though French's prose still could not be said to be graceful, there is an energy here that pushes the reader forward, particularly early in the novel in the passages that deal with Belle's childhood and youth and Anastasia's childhood. One comes to feel, however, that the novel could have used editing. It is overlong, particularly the sections which encompass Anastasia's own marriages, of which we seem to get almost a day-by-day description; it is very familiar territory. And the extensive accounts of her photographic travels seem unnecessary, and sometimes downright unbelievable, particularly an episode in which she goes on a failed, pre-Bay-of-Pigs mission with the group known as "Alpha-16."
Perhaps more damning is a charge that has been made against French before, that her novels suffer from a knee-jerk feminist stereotype in which all men are, at worst, brutal and, at best, insensitive. Surely, the world isn't that black and white? Still, many women will recognize the world French has given us and will be especially grateful to have known Belle, the character who, for all her irritating traits, remains in the mind long after others are forgotten. Just like Mother.
Susan Wood is a poet who teaches at Rice University.