(Henry Holt and Company)
To a daughter, a mother is a mystery that she must unravel. Rae Meadows’s most recent novel, Mothers and Daughters, tells us the story of three generations of women whose lives are forever connected through the momentous force of motherhood and the mystery it holds. Samantha, Iris and Violet share a history full of secrets. Each character is further complicated by the story of the mother who comes before her. When a box arrives on Samantha’s doorstep containing items belonging to her recently deceased mother, the mystery begins to unravel.
When speaking about the mystery of the book, Meadows says, "I think the novel explores the mystery at the core of seemingly ordinary lives ... Sam, Iris, and Violet each come to realize that her humanity—and understanding of self—is inextricably linked to her history. "
The novel is three separate stories expertly woven into one cohesive piece. Samantha is the modern day mother who is struggling to cope with the birth of her daughter and the secrets she keeps about her involvement with a death. Her mother, Iris, is dying of cancer. As she prepares to leave the world she comes to terms with her transgressions of infidelity. The story of Violet, Iris's mother, is the catalyst for the novel. It is Violet’s nineteenth century childhood that we follow as she becomes one of two hundred thousand children to ride an orphan train from New York to the Midwest. The novel seems to be pushing against the words of the woman in charge of the orphans, Mrs. Comstock. "The past is the past,” she says, but as Meadows explores these women’s lives, we come to realize that the past is what shapes their decisions.
Every woman has a "self" that she has not revealed to her daughter, and every daughter has a longing to connect with her mother. I won't reveal all the secrets, but you can trust the author to pepper these women's introspection with enough intrigue to keep the pages turning.
Fittingly, this is the first book Meadows has written since becoming a mother herself. She aligns herself with the character of Samantha, struggling to return to her art while redefining the self she thought she knew. “Sam still felt at the mercy of her biology, and sometimes she quietly raged against not having a say about the intensity of feeling she had for Ella.”
By the end of the book, I would argue that the daughters, as well, have no say over the intensity of feeling they have for their mothers. The author’s original title, Mercy Train, seems more fitting to the tone of the book. Apparently, the paperback publishers agree, as this is the title it will be published under when it comes out in paperback in May.
- Kori Hennessy