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What It Meant to Be Her Daughter : SPIRALS : A Woman's Journey Through Family Life by Joan Gould (Random House: $18.95; 318 pp.) : MOTHERS : Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Literary Daughters edited by Susan Cahill (Mentor/New American Library: $4.95, paper; 352 pp.)

May 15, 1988|Michele Orwin | Orwin's first novel, "Waiting for Next Week," has just been published by Henry Holt

Perhaps no families are alike after all. Snapshots in an album reveal what we've known all along: No family even resembles itself over time. The pivotal events of family drama--birth, death, divorce--change a family further, creating a private history, a mythology. But, like a family album passed around to friends and neighbors, family stories told to outsiders require something extraordinary enough to hold our interest, something familiar enough to make us care. Joan Gould's book, "Spirals: A Woman's Journey Through Family Life," has both.

"Writing a book about family," Gould says in the introduction, "means writing a book about time . . . since time is the dimension families live in, but friends and lovers lack."

For Gould, time doesn't travel in a straight line or a circle, but in a spiral. "I may not get ahead," she says, "but I get around. I swing in loops, always kept in my path by my relation to my family, which is the spiral's core."

And a spiral is the pattern that Gould has chosen for this book; a true story that moves forward from the time that Gould's husband, Martin, a litigation attorney, becomes terminally ill with cancer of the colon, through the three years following his death to the time when Gould's mother dies only months after Gould's daughter has become a mother. Through all these changes, transformations, shifts in position and perspective, Gould skillfully captures all the adjustments she must make for her family, her family makes for her.

While the story moves forward, it keeps swinging back and around, as Gould fills in information about the husband she was married to and clearly adored for 28 years; the son she had when she turned 40, who is still at home; the older son, also an attorney, who divorces his wife; her daughter, who marries and has a baby; her father who walked out on her mother after 36 years of marriage and has remarried; and her mother, always returning to her mother, a lonely, depressed woman who lives in the Upper East Side apartment where she grew up.

Gould says she intended to write about her roles as wife and mother, then widow and grandmother, but couldn't place herself correctly in any of them until she understood her role as a daughter.

"My mother never liked me, I was sure of that, or at the very least, she'd never approved of me. We'd never spent a peaceful afternoon together. How was I to deal with someone I might love but didn't necessarily like--in particular, how was I going to deal with her impending death? I couldn't simply distance myself, as I'd done in the past. The bond between us was real. If she died while I was unable to mourn for her, I felt that I would wipe out her existence as a mother . . . while at the same time, I would diminish my own life in a way I couldn't yet understand."

The story is based on Gould's journal, and though it is no longer in the shape of a journal, it retains a journal's intimate style. Gould is a careful observer, a faithful recorder of her own actions and reactions, thoughts and conclusions. She won't rush her own insights; she won't temper her view of herself or her mother with any of the compassion she shows for everyone else in her life. What is touching about how Gould tells her story is also initially troubling.

Gould isn't really writing about time, she's writing about people, in particular her mother, and the curious link between mothers and daughters. The way she portrays herself and her mother--both equally inflexible, both equally demanding--has the feel of candor only because it's so harsh. What it lacks is the generosity Gould uses in the portraits of the rest of her family. When Gould's attitude finally softens, when she shares her growing understanding as she gains it herself, the book takes on another dimension.

By way of forgiving her mother and herself, Gould says toward the end, "We are never capable of acting better than we did. We are never capable of finding a solution to a problem, because we exist on the same level with the problem. Then, one day, something or somebody moves us to another level. The problem isn't solved; it ceases to exist."

So it is with her book, when she finishes the account of her "journey through family life," the minor annoyances of the trip have disappeared and what remains is a feeling of respect for Gould as a courageous traveler and a capable guide.

This journey women make to find themselves through understanding their mothers takes on a broader scope in "Mothers: Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Literary Daughters," a collection of essays, memoirs, autobiographical excerpts and letters by 19 well-known writers. The styles vary as much as the writers' backgrounds. All 19 write beautifully and with great detail about their mothers. They describe the complexities of the relationship, some openly loving, some eventually, and the way their mothers aroused fierce pride and often equally fierce shame.

"What runs through all these selections," Susan Cahill says in her introduction, "is an intense emotional current that joins the engaging mothers and their sensitive, alert daughters across the generations. How the daughters, who grew up to become writers, perceived the features of their mothers' gifts. . . ." This is true, and yet the connection seems harder to see and not quite to matter--each chapter stands on its own, some more interesting than others. The collection itself is as lovingly prepared as the writers' work.

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