Her closest friends call her by her initials: A.M. She reminds a caller that her often hilarious and frequently unsettling novels – This Book Will Save Your Life (about an L.A. businessman in midlife crisis); The End of Alice (about the correspondence between a college coed and a pedophile murderer); and Jack (about a teenage boy whose father comes out of the closet) – are anything but autobiographical. And while she is funny, friendly, even chatty during a call to her home in Manhattan, A.M. Homes deftly deflects any and all questions about her personal life: "What can I tell you about my family life? I have one child, I live in New York City, I have a dog and, you know, a really busy life," she says with pleasant finality.
No wonder that Homes, who is something of celebrity in New York literary circles, has a reputation for being a very private person. No wonder, too, that she found writing her extraordinary memoir about meeting her birth parents 30 years after being put up for adoption "so incredibly, god-awful hard."
The Mistress’s Daughter opens in 1992 during a Christmas visit Homes made to her family in Washington, D.C. After dinner on her first night there, Homes’ parents sit her down and tell her that her birth mother wants to meet her. Homes had always known she was adopted. Even as a child she remembers feeling she was "kind of in service to other people in some way" because of this. "So I was often paying attention to other people’s moods and what they might be thinking and feeling. Part of that is who I am as a person anyway. But always being slightly on the outside and always watching a bit more than participating is in some way a combination of the experience of being adopted and of my own personality." It’s also an experience that helped define her as a writer, she says. "I tend to observe people’s emotional lives. I’m not that observant of the physical world in some ways, but I really do know how to read people."
Homes’ appraisal of her own conflicted emotions about her birth parents is both unsparingly honest and psychologically harrowing. Of course there is much to be conflicted about. Homes’ birth mother, who was 22 when Homes was born, never married or had another child and was a complicated, needy, unpleasant woman who died alone of kidney failure in 1998 after walking away from an operation that might have saved her life. Homes’ birth father was a much older, successful businessman with a family when he began his affair with a teenage girl working in his shop. He demanded that Homes take a DNA test and when the test proved she was his daughter, he promised to make her part of his family. He also said "Now that I’m your father, I think that I have the right to ask – are you dating anyone?"
The Mistress’s Daughter is A.M. Homes at her mordant best. "I don’t think I could have written this book without all the experience I’ve had as a writer of novels, of editing and trying to be concise," she says of her struggles to complete the book. "One of the hardest things about it was taking something that was so emotional and psychological and finding words for it. It’s an emotional experience that’s very primitive. It’s the basic experience of being separated from your parents."
Homes wrote the first section of The Mistress’s Daughter shortly after her birth mother died and her birth father reneged on his promise to introduce her to the rest of her family. A version of the book’s first section appeared in The New Yorker in 2004. The publication was problematic and her professionalism was threatened because she shielded her birth father’s identity. "The guy never behaved particularly well but I always felt protective of him because it wasn’t like something he had asked for," she says.
But in 2005 Homes finally opened the "toxic boxes" of papers and photographs and memorabilia rescued from her mother’s apartment after the funeral and kept for years in mini-storage, and The Mistress’s Daughter became a book with a much larger purpose – the exploration of adoption, identity, questions of nature vs. nurture and the very meaning of "family" itself. "I suddenly wanted to be sure that I was going somewhere further, doing something more than just telling that story," Homes says.
One result of this enlargement of purpose was that Homes could no longer protect her birth father’s identity. "I had to be true to the story and not hide from it despite how painful it was for me to tell it and what it might feel like to somebody else," she says. "To not use the names [of her father and his ancestors] meant to negate the story all over again, when the whole point of this is to say that you do have the right to your own life story, that one person cannot decide that you are not allowed your lineage."
Another result of the process was the expansion of Homes’ own emotional point of view. She attained a new understanding and sympathy for her birth mother. And she accepted that her birth father’s family will see him differently than she sees him. "They would because they have a very different experience of him," she says. "Honestly? As you grow up you just realize that life is more complicated and people are more complicated than they first appear, which is kind of a great thing and kind of hard to deal with. It’s hard to reconcile and accept that people who are capable of great things also do horrible things. But the sophisticated approach is to realize that a person can be different and behave differently in different situations."
And it is this movement from personal history to broad understanding that makes A.M. Homes’ The Mistress’s Daughter such a powerful read.
Alden Mudge, who serves as a juror for the Kiriyama Prize, writes from Oakland.