Her Mother’s Daughter

The two women of the earliest generations lead lives that are physically exhausting, powerless, and impoverished; the two who follow have greater choice and comforts but are themselves limited by their emotional inheritance. Frances is a Polish immigrant whose desperate life, first as a slavelike wife and then as a destitute widow, results in an inability to nurture her daughter, Belle. Belle, lonely and insecure, enjoys a brief flowering in the vitality of the 1920’s but later subsides into a flawed marriage and recurrent depression. Her daughter, Anastasia, who serves as the novel’s main voice, has thus inherited a painful legacy: “For a baby rat taken from its mother at the moment of birth ... will in her turn, not lick her infant clean. ... And so on, down the generations. ... The truth is it is not the sins of the fathers that descend ... but the sorrows of the mothers.” Anastasia will try, in her own life and in relation to her children, to break this pattern of misdirected anger and misused love.

Other factors beyond maternal influence are chronicled as well: Divorce, friendships, family violence, sibling regard, and class identity figure in the novel; French successfully avoids oversimplification.

Some of the more interesting passages depict the grim lives of Frances and Belle as young women in the sweatshops and poverty of immigrant New York. It is they who have paid to allow Anastasia the luxury of ruminating at such great length on her own emotional difficulties and permitting her daughter, Arden, to experiment wildly with life-styles.

Anastasia’s soul-searching, some of it probing and perceptive, is nevertheless excessive--bringing the book to nearly seven hundred pages-- and mars what is otherwise an impressive achievement with rich characterizations and psychological insights.