Mother and daughter Elaine and Olivia have a difficulty relationship. Neither seems capable of compromising throughout a lifetime of mutual dissatisfaction. Hence, Olivia’s young life is frequently characterized by rebelliousness. She has been involved in campus politics, even arrested once, but that is the extent of her activities.
When real trouble surfaces, Elaine and Olivia’s best hope is an all but futile struggle against the justice system. Olivia meets boyfriend Jorge in Mexico, never expecting him to show up on her doorstep. But he does and soon moves in with Olivia. Although he cannot find work, becoming more and more desperate. Olivia has found work as a waitress since she dropped out of college -- much to her mother’s disappointment -- so she continues to support them both. Feeling emasculated, Gorge plans a drug deal with a coworker of Olivia’s, marginally involving her by using her vehicle for the transaction; Olivia also takes a phone message for Jorge, although she is adamant that he not become involved in drug trafficking. When Jorge is arrested, he turns Olivia in as an accomplice to lighten his sentence.
Unfortunately for both of them, Olivia and Jorge are on trial in federal court, which carries mandatory sentences for drug trafficking. In the middle of the night, Olivia finds herself dragged out of bed and into jail, not comprehending the nightmare that has only just begun. Her court-appointed lawyer attempts to steer Olivia through the system, but Olivia’s mother must put up her home as bond to get her daughter released on bail. This is only the beginning as they prepare for a trial where Olivia is virtually assured of conviction, dependent on her young attorney for any chance to avoid a mandatory sentence of a minimum of six years.
What first appears to be a power struggle between mother and daughter evolves instead into a horrific struggle against draconian drug laws that leave no room for negotiation. The federal officers are concerned only with putting away the accused, even if their involvement is merely incidental.
Both Olivia and Elaine learn the lessons of a lifetime but have no control over the outcome of events. Elaine’s critical decisions will drastically affect her daughter’s future, and her motherly instincts are worthless. Ordinary rules no longer apply. Nice people find their own naiveté a burden in this circumstance, one that can lead to disaster.
A former federal defender, author Ayelet Waldman shows clear passion for the subject; the court-related aspects of the novel are detailed and precise. The emotional issues between mother and daughter are more difficult, especially when Olivia discovers that she is pregnant. Elaine must face life-changing decisions, for herself and her fiancé, as well as for Olivia.
All in all, this is an excellent first effort, full of passion and purpose, the author’s call for public awareness loud and clear. However, the most emotional events are compressed into the final pages of the novel, so there is a sense that the plot got away from Waldman. The most confident writing is about the trial itself, the author’s area of expertise. Whatever its shortcomings, Daughter’s Keeper is a success, a “Scared Straight” script for citizens of a more threatening federal judicial system, one without heart or compassion.