The title of this novel refers to the spell that Margot Lehmann has unintentionally placed upon her youngest daughter, Hannah Lehmann, the protagonist, who at twenty-six is so obsessed with her mother that she cannot live her own life. In order to come to terms with her past, Hannah, who tells her story in the first person, recalls incidents in what seems to be a random pattern, but which actually is a carefully structured narrative, in which each of the eighteen chapters of the book deals with a particular theme or setting or aspect of Hannah’s life.
The Lehmanns are a wealthy Jewish family who live luxuriously on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with a full staff of servants, and summer in their own second home. Neither Hannah’s mother nor her friends can understand the child’s desire to belong to some other family. After all, as Margot points out, she has everything. Nor do the other children have what Margot calls Hannah’s “Orphan Annie” complex. From babyhood, however, Hannah has longed for more than her mother could give, longed for a mother who would bake cookies, hug her to a motherly bosom, and, above all, think that she was perfect.
Margot is a practical, realistic person, who declares that she wishes her epitaph to read: “She never made mountains out of molehills.” As the novel progresses, Margot springs into life as a vigorous, independent woman who can enchant the reader almost as much as she has enchanted Hannah. Margot cannot be summed up as easily as Hannah’s cookie-baking, ideal Jewish mother can be, simply because she is complex and, indeed, fascinating. She is frugal, practical, and insensitive to an adolescent girl’s faddy needs, yet she buys expensive shoes for herself. While capable of fury, at other times she placidly assures the histrionic Hannah that everything will be all right. Her detachment drives Hannah to despair, yet there is something admirable in Margot’s refusal to accept the responsibility for her daughter’s neuroses. Indicted for past actions, she points out that that was the past, then cuts off discussion as if she is bored with it. Hannah’s tantrums result only in Margot’s ironic admission that she is a bad mother, but, as she points out, Hannah has not lacked for food, clothing, or shelter. When Hannah cuts herself with manicure scissors, attempting to get her mother’s attention, Margot bandages her, tells her that her feelings are foolish, and goes out. None of Hannah’s strategies produces the desired results. Margot’s detachment always triumphs.
Although the struggle between Hannah and Margot permeates the entire novel, some chapters focus on incidents involved in other relationships. For example, the ninth and the thirteenth chapters deal with Hannah’s father, Walter Lehmann. Walter is a man who, as Hannah realizes, belongs to his wife; he is not susceptible to the charms of little girls. In Hannah’s words, he is “not seducible.” Busy with his work, his religious and civic activities, his social life, and his marriage, he does not give his daughters the special attention which all of them would like and which Hannah craves. Although Walter seems to be aware of Hannah’s desperation and does his best to help, making her his coat-check child when she is little, taking her to a dinner when she is older, the closeness of his relationship to his wife precludes the kind of closeness which alone would satisfy Hannah, and indeed, she is so besotted with her mother, so unable to appreciate her father as a sexual being, that it is unlikely any effort on his part would be helpful.
A number of the chapters explore Hannah’s perceptions about her brothers and sisters. One would think that if the parents seemed distant, brothers and sisters so near in age would have formed alliances and intimacies with one another. Hannah does not believe this to be true. When a dinner guest comments on the closeness of the children, Hannah thinks:But hasn’t she noticed that...
(The entire section is 1623 words.)