(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Fittingly, in a novel that considers to what extent individuals can create their own destinies and to what extent those destinies are shaped by the people around them, A Mother and Two Daughters both opens and closes with a party. Nell and Leonard Strickland attend the first party at the home of Theodora Blount, representative of the “old guard” and repository of conservative, traditional Southern values. Yet the appearance at the party of Theodora’s unmarried, pregnant, backwoods protégée, the teenage Wickie Lee, suggests that those values may be in transition, as does the epigraph (from D. H. Lawrence’s “Dies Irae”) for part 1: “Our epoch is over, a cycle of evolution is finished.”

The course of part 1 reveals that the lives of the three protagonists are also in transition. Nell Strickland loses her husband, Leonard, to a heart attack immediately after Theodora’s party. Nell’s younger daughter, Lydia, has just left her husband of sixteen years to create a life of her own, which she initiates by going back to college. Lydia’s older sister, Cate, is between men and doubtful that her job teaching English at the insolvent Melanchthon College in Iowa can long continue. As they struggle to redefine their lives, all three women feel the loss of Leonard, an introspective, idealistic lawyer, whose gentleness and sensitivity had always acted as a restraining influence on his strong-willed wife and daughters.

That none of the women can begin the process of redefinition with a clean slate or, as Cate puts it, can run from their histories—including their mistakes—is suggested by the epigraph for part 2, from the I Ching: “KU—WORK ON WHAT HAS BEEN SPOILED (DECAY).” Cate’s history of fierce independence and fear of being submerged in the protective embrace of another leads her to reject the marriage proposal of the equally strong and...

(The entire section is 780 words.)