Mothers and Daughters
Rae Meadows
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Buy *Mothers and Daughters* by Rae Meadows online

Mothers and Daughters
Rae Meadows
Henry Holt
272 pages
March 2011
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In this lovely, fluid novel, birth and death are powerful forces. A little girl living on the streets of 19th-century New York crosses the country in search of a new life. In present-day Wisconsin and Florida, mother and daughter Iris and Sam are finally able to share their most intimate secrets as Iris prepares to die. Her body dissipating quickly, riddled and broken-down with cancer, Iris is quickly descending into a vortex of pain.

Both Iris and Sam have learnt to compromise throughout a lifetime of secrets. Sam's existence is mostly characterized by her happy marriage to Jack, and she's proud of her attentiveness and her devotion to Ella, her little girl. But Sam is also a frustrated artist. A maker of ceramic pots, Samís work has recently stalled for reasons she canít quite explain.

Although it is never stated, Sam is going to care for Iris until she dies. Since her divorce, Iris has lived in relative seclusion on Sanibel Island, Florida. Locked in a futile, silent struggle with her illness, Irisís day of reckoning fast approaches, her narrow world distinguished by solitary walks, fistfuls of narcotics to ease the pain, and the occasional conversation with her gay neighbor, who brings men home late into the night.

Iris is no whiner. She has long since come to terms with the fact that she is gradually sinking and slowing a bit more each day. She has found a measure of balance and solace in her small, impersonal series of white-walled rooms. Free at last from sentimentality, Iris can reflect on her marriage, motherhood, and a last-minute affair while she thinks of her own mother, Violet, a utilitarian farmerís wife who told her little about her part in the orphan train experiments of the nineteenth century.

From the silly cares of youth to the anxieties of middle age to the humility and acceptance that comes with old age, Meadows' story bursts with many transcendent moments: the wrath of Irisís illness and her grueling, humiliating physical descent; Violet on the streets of New York, locked in a daily struggle for survival with her fellow scrappy, scratched and dirty friends; Violetís mother, Lilibeth, and her addiction to opium at Madame Tangís den; and Sam's exploration of her intense feelings for Ella as she works though the ďthorny moral brambles of abortionĒ while balancing her first tentative attempts to be apart from her daughter.

The crux of the novel is Violetís journey. Meadows constricts the events of the orphan train - girls and boys of all ages, some in orphanage-issued uniform, and some in tattered streetworn clothes, all cringing at the murmurs of the Aid Society women who see the trains as an opportunity for the children to be delivered from poverty and sin. For Violet, itís an opportunity - however reluctant - to escape from the endless struggle and brutality of life in New York City.

Free from the intrusive weight of memories and history, Sam, Iris and Violet connect in sinuous ways. Like the pound cake Sam delicately bakes, the author layers their dilemmas with compassion and sorrow. Sam cries for her grandmother and her mother, and for the shame that she canít quite share. Iris finally embraces death's swiftness and silence. Stories never shared echo throughout this gorgeous tale, the author's three unique voices symbolizing the complex, sometimes rocky terrain of maternal love and desire.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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