A Mother and Two Daughters Summary
by Gail Godwin

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A Mother and Two Daughters Summary

(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 independent pesticide manufacturer, Roger Jernigan, and to abort the child they inadvertently conceived together. At the same time, although she refuses to admit defeat, the bankruptcy of Melanchthon College brings Cate to a low point in her career.

Meanwhile, Lydia’s star has been rising. She gets A’s in all of her college courses, has a passionate affair with a man who adores her, finds an important woman friend in the brilliant black instructor of a course in the History of Female Consciousness, and lands a job in front of the cameras on a local television show.

In the wake of Leonard’s death, Nell retreats into her house in Mountain City and thinks about her past with him: how he “protected” her “from my harshest judgments of myself as well as of others.” Yet she seems to accept her loss, content to watch the baby crows outside her window and somewhat impatient when her house is invaded by Theodora’s book club.

Nell’s serenity is disturbed when, in part 3, she and her daughters converge on Leonard’s old cottage on the island of Ocracoke. Nell’s grief is reawakened, but a friendship is renewed when she discovers that an old schoolmate has rented the cottage next...

(The entire section is 780 words.)