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Contemporary Novels

MOTHER DAUGHTER WIDOW WIFE by Robin Wasserman

Lew's Book Reviews: Cover of Mother, Daughter, Widow, WifeThis novel is not so much a hall of mirrors as a hall of echoes. As an auditory echo makes a space seem more vast, so literary echoes make this novel of carefully chosen specifics speak to larger issues of gender, identity, memory, and loss.

It begins with a mystery: Who is “Wendy Doe,” a patient suffering dissociative fugue, a kind of temporary amnesia that has not only deprived her of her memories, but also her personality? The time is the late 1990s, and she has ended up at the Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research, in the care of “cognitive psychology’s latest golden god,” Dr. Benjamin Strauss, who assigns newly hired researcher Lizzie Epstein to her case.

The narrative quickly expands to include four viewpoints: Wendy’s journal; Lizzie’s third-person POV in the nineties; the third-person narrative of Alice, Wendy’s daughter, in the 2010s; and the first-person voice of “Elizabeth,” who is Lizzie 18 years later. To Wasserman’s credit, as she darts back and forth between these perspectives, I was only disoriented in the early pages, as she intended me to be.

The viewpoint characters all have losses in common. Lizzie is still mourning her beloved father; when we meet her again as Elizabeth, she has just lost her husband. Alice loses her mother twice; Wendy has lost everything, and will herself be lost when her memory returns. Lizzie and Alice both abandon stalled relationships when they travel to Meadowlark; all three (four, counting Elizabeth) characters struggle to define themselves in ways that don’t also limit them–as the four categories of the title do. All the women long to be seen, in all their complexity.

Wendy’s fugue state is echoed by Benjamin’s love of Bach fugues, and by the structure of the novel itself, in which different voices pick up and play variations on themes of attachment and betrayal. This is just one example of the complexity of the novel, yet it never feels contrived or mechanical. Instead it feels rich, satisfying, lifelike. Wasserman’s intelligence and depth of scientific knowledge are reflected in her characters, especially Lizzie, whose acidic humor reminded me of Karen Joy Fowler: “The last time Lizzie came for a visit, her mother had been dating a therapist and wanted to talk about feelings. Specifically, she wanted to talk about Lizzie’s feeling like she had been abandoned by her mother, back when her mother abandoned her.”

For all its smarts and intricacy, the novel has moments of raw shock. There is an incident of rough sex, for example, that went far beyond my comfort level. I don’t believe Wasserman cares about my comfort, nor should she. Her responsibility is to her characters, and she sees them as they are.

By Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner is the author of OUTSIDE THE GATES OF EDEN, the cyberpunk classic FRONTERA, and the award-winning GLIMPSES, among other novels. He's also published short story collections, journalism, and comics. Virtually all of his work is available for free download at fictionliberationfront.net. For more information, browse to lewisshiner.com.

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