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Daddy's Girl Discovers Her Mother : MOTHER'S GIRL by Elaine Feinstein (E. P. Dutton: $16.95; 160 pp.; 0-525-24688-6)

December 11, 1988|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena

The phrase "identity crisis" has been consigned to the closest of disused cliches. Yet, if anything, the problem of identity has grown more complex as individuals continue trying to find themselves within a welter of overlapping, often contradictory, categories. There's class consciousness (courtesy of Marx), nationalism (a legacy of German Romanticism still alive and kicking), ethnicity (a recent American contribution), and religion (which often gets mixed up with race, ethnicity, nationality, even class). There's Freud's concept of the family as the crucible of personal identity. More recently, feminists have reviewed the question from the perspective of gender politics, which encompass both the psychology of the individual and the structures that determine broader cultural and social patterns.

Elaine Feinstein is not one for easy answers. Her latest novel, ironically entitled "Mother's Girl," appears to be the story of a classically Freudian father's girl who seeks vainly to win the love and approval of "superior" men, only to discover, just in time to save her self-esteem, the value of her maternal legacy. Something like this does, in fact, happen. But it's only one thread among many.

Uprooted from her beloved Budapest as a child, Halina grows up in the English Midlands. In place of her cultivated, assimilationist parents and the Continental world of Mozart, Bach, boulevards and cafes, she finds herself in the home of kindly but simple English Jews who take pride in their down-to-earth Yiddishkeit and look on Mozart and Bach as alien Germans. As Halina enters adolescence, her dashing father Leo reappears, trailing welcome clouds of worldliness. How he escaped from Nazi-controlled Hungary is something of a mystery. What happened to Halina's gentle, brave mother is also not quite known, but she is presumed dead.

Halina develops a penchant for difficult men. First, there's Christopher, who manages to exude an aura of misery, despite his good looks and intellectual gifts. Then, there's Janos, who reminds people of Wittgenstein. Ten years older than Halina, a fellow refugee scarred by the horrors he has seen, Janos cuts a darkly brilliant figure on the idyllic 1950s Cambridge scene. Halina is "enchanted by his blackness" and longs to comfort him with her youth, her body and her warmth. Her misfortune is that she gets her wish. Her attempts to comfort him are in vain, and Janos disparages her for failing, even though he has done his utmost to resist her efforts.

Halina narrates her story to her half-sister Lucy, who has come to London from Los Angeles on the eve of their father's funeral. Although most of the book is taken up with Halina's narrative, Lucy provides a brief, but scathing story of her own in which Leo figures as a typical male predator who victimized Lucy's mother, a once-pretty actress. Yet Halina, who has also learned to take a more critical view of her father than she did as a child, still loves him and still regards her experiences with brilliant, difficult men as enriching: ". . . it is better for the human soul to love than to travel painlessly over the surface of the planet," she declares at one point.

A poet, novelist, and translator of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva, Feinstein has an ear for the echoes of history and a sense of how history shapes and colors our private lives. But one cannot help feeling that this brief novel is overwhelmed by too many themes, none of them fully developed or lucidly crystallized in relation to the others. "Mother's Girl" remains a novel that sounds more interesting in theory than it turns out to be in practice.

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