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The Mistress’s Daughter: A Memoir

by A.M. Homes Viking; $24.95

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In The Mistress’s Daughter, there are two photographs: one of A.M. Homes, the author, at about four years old, and another of her biological mother, Ellen Ballman, also as a young girl. The resemblance between the mother, who would find herself pregnant at age 22, and her daughter, adopted at birth in 1961, is astonishing.

The photos of these pretty girls, who share the same sweet smile, raise the hope that Homes will write about a tender reunion. But those who read Homes’s 2004 New Yorker essay that launched this book already know otherwise.

At 31, Homes discovers that her birthmother is looking for her. Warily, she agrees to speak with her on the phone. “She wants everything all at once and it is too much for me,” writes Homes. “I am talking to the woman who has loomed in my mind, larger than life, for the entirety of my life, and I am terrified.” Later, she concludes, “I am not who I thought I was, and neither is she the queen of queens I imagined.”

A daring, critically acclaimed novelist, Homes is unflinchingly honest about her disappointment with her birthmother, whom she eventually meets. She also meets her birthfather, but the secrecy he insists on sours their tenuous relationship. Throughout the book, Homes challenges the draining legacy of closed adoptions—the guessing, the withholding of information, the haunting questions.

A compulsive page-turner, Homes’s often raw and unsettling memoir ends on a surprisingly warm note, with a tribute to her adoptive grandmother, thanking her for the role she played in Homes’s decision to become a mother. “Without Jewel Spitzer Rosenberg, there would likely be no Juliet Spencer Homes—a girl who is now almost three, with no biological relation to my grandmother, yet bearing a striking physical relation to her,” writes Homes. What’s more, she says, “I am not sure that I would have become a writer if it weren’t for her. She is in some ways how or why this book exists.”

Reviewed by RENÉE OLSON, the editor of Adoptive Families and an adoptive mom.

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