A.M. Homesís memoir, The Mistress's Daughter, is both a fascinating and irritating read: fascinating for its examination of an adopted childís adult relationship with her birth parents, irritating when the relationships devolve into dysfunctional, petty encounters by people unable to be honest with themselves.
Homes, adopted at birth, is contacted by her birth mother when she is 31. Having long dreamed of her biological parents, imagining them as beautiful, interesting, wonderful people, she is quickly disappointed, even repulsed, by the truth she discovers. Her mother, Ellen Ballman, was the teenage mistress of an older, married man, Norman. Ellen was completely devoted to Norman, would do anything for him, even subsume herself, while Norman was disdainful, lecherous, and tossed Ellen aside once he knew she was pregnant. Ellen is extraordinarily needy when Homes meets her, demanding gifts, cards, visits, stalking Homes at bookstore readings, wanting to be completely taken care of, even rescued by Homes, just as she wanted Norman to rescue her as a young girl.
Norman, on the other hand, is well off, well known, and would rather Homes hadnít come into his life, though Homes eventually suspects he is using her as a connection back to Ellen. But when Homes presses Norman for more information about his family, his wife, his children Ė her stepsiblings Ė and her heritage, Norman requires her to take a DNA test, then never allows her to see the results. He is both patronizing and disdainful of his daughter, ashamed of her illegitimacy and proud of her status as a well-known author.
Homesís encounters with her birth parents are fascinating: the reader reacts with some of the same astonishment Homes herself must surely have felt at meeting these selfish, shallow creatures who gave her life. Her relationships with Ellen and Norman are unsatisfying for both Homes and the reader, and there are more unanswered questions than there are answers to the puzzle of their lives. Towards the end of the book, after Ellen dies and Norman severs contact with her, Homes, in her frustration, devotes an entire chapter to an almost childish listing of questions for Norman, questions she would ask him in a court of law, should she have the chance, in part to clarify the different stories she heard about the relationship between Ellen and Norman. This page-after-page list is irritating for the reader, and the questions are never answered.
By the end of the memoir, Homesís narrative has become disjointed and even boring. She concludes her memoir with a story about her much-loved adoptive grandmother, for whom she named her own daughter, but this last story feels out of place, maybe in the same way that Homes herself has felt out of place in her own life. Perhaps if Homes had chosen to let her story simmer for a few more years, she would have been able to resolve her feelings of incongruity and written a more satisfactory ending.