Although a woman's sexual passion disguised as romantic love has been a favorite theme of novels from their inception, in "Her Mother's Daughter" Marilyn French shows women agonizing over their children more than they suffer from their thwarted desire for men.
Her mothers are like midges who "do not lay eggs" but reproduce their "young from inside their bodies"--not in a uterus but in their tissues; eventually, the midge's entire body is filled, devoured from the inside. French's midge-daughter at birth "breaks out of her mother/prison, leaving behind only a chitinous shell." As she grows up, she rejects her mother, vowing to raise her children differently, to escape from her mother's constrictive influence. "Her Mother's Daughter" chronicles the anatomy of the mother-daughter relationship. The love-obsessed mother projects her frustrated dreams onto her daughter, who reacts with hatred or, at best, ambivalence.
In her latest novel, French tells the story of four generations of women--Frances, Isabelle, Anastasia, Arden. The time of the novel is from the early 1900s to the 1980s, and the locale is New York; from Brooklyn to Rockville Centre and Brightwaters, Long Island, to Manhattan. The saga begins with 13-year-old Polish emigrant Frances Bychkowska, whose first job is as a servant in an oppressive household. After her marriage, she lives with a modicum of prosperity until her husband's sudden death. Left penniless with four children, Frances is forced to put three of her children in an orphanage and to choose which one to keep with her.
Alone each day for 10 hours while her mother works in a sweatshop, 9-year-old Isabelle might well have been happier in the orphanage. Always exhausted, Frances can not comfort the daughter she chose. Her tears intermingle with her curses against those who now have her other children. Isabelle retreats to a fantasy life as a rich girl named Anastasia. In years to come, Isabelle's capacity to love and nurture her own children is permanently affected by her mother's gloom that blighted her spirit.
As Frances' children grow older, she is able to regain their custody. They all work and pool their money to improve their living conditions. Their successful struggle to leave the slums and own a home touches on the American Dream. French does not gloss over the value of money, nor the washing machine it buys to make women's work easier. She shows the middle-class tract home fostering a community of women. However, when upward mobility takes wives into elegant homes, they feel as isolated as they did in poverty.
Isabelle's daughter, Anastasia, is the focus and first-person narrator of this novel. Like an archeologist, she probes into "the spring" of her mother's love, reconstructing her life and then her grandmother's. Anastasia restores their lives from fragments of conversation, faded photographs and from the way her mother prepares food. In counterpoint, she recounts episodes in their lives, then in her own life, rather than in straight chronological fashion. She uses a journal, which she keeps as her life unfolds and which she later interprets. French handles her narrative strategies skillfully--otherwise, her flashing back and forth might confuse the reader.
Both Isabelle and Anastasia expect Anastasia to escape her legacy of tears to live a happy and free life. But, as with her mother, Anastasia is forced into marriage by an unwanted pregnancy, ending her freedom forever. Not that her mother hadn't warned her about men, who "had nothing to give a woman except economic security." Unless a wife learned to manipulate her husband, her mother told her, "you were finished"; he'd be "a tyrannical brute."
Even though the husbands in this story invariably turn out to be wimps or bores or bullies, their wives, for the sake of their children, do not leave them. The wives' disillusioned love for their husbands is transformed into their greatest passion--a mother's love for her children. In their singleness of purpose, French's mothers stoop to any stratagem to nurture their children, as they continue to live with men they dislike. When the children get on their fathers' nerves, the fathers turn abusive. Even though the mothers seek to protect them from this abuse, in later years the children blame mother for their problems, not father. Anastasia's daughter repeats her mother's pattern as the novel ends in the 1980s. A sense of integrity of self, personal morality, is a luxury few women can afford, French says. Her characters are a far cry from an enraged Medea who killed her children to take revenge on her faithless husband.