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BOOK REVIEW : Long-Lost Mother Becomes Obsessed by Fantasy : IN A COUNTRY OF MOTHERS by A. M. Homes ; Alfred A. Knopf $22, 272 pages

July 09, 1993|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jody Goodman is so afraid of flying that she's wavering about going to film school at UCLA, although she's reasonably sure she wants to be a director. Getting across the continent is the problem.

At the moment she's in New York, working as a production assistant on a movie that doesn't seem destined to be the breakthrough its backers need. Of course, she could choose an alternate means of transportation to the West Coast or dose herself with tranquilizers before boarding the plane, but those obvious solutions would give us another book or none at all.

Jody calls a psychologist recommended by her previous therapist. Of course, the airplane trip isn't the whole problem. There's also Jody's dependence upon her over-protective family in Bethesda, Md., but, all things considered, she seems to be coping quite well.

Her first session with Claire Roth elicits the fact that Jody is an adopted child with a corrosive wit and the means to pay a therapist $95 an hour. Further sessions merely confirm these facts without adding many new ones. The therapy putters along without any appreciable improvement in Jody's attitude.

Roth, however, finds her mildly neurotic new patient extraordinarily fascinating. On the surface, Roth is the very model of a successful career woman, the mother of two young sons and passionately in love with her husband. Even so, her first encounter with Jody Goodman so unnerves her that she goes to a professional colleague for advice, ostensibly about her son Jake's pre-adolescent apathy.

Eavesdropping on Claire's 50-minute hour, we discover that she has virtually no connection with her own family, who "live in a split-level house in northern Virginia with a two-car garage" and attend church every Sunday.

"There were big holes in what she said, but she knew Rosenblatt didn't see them. . . . She wouldn't tell him the whole story, she promised herself that." Roth is more candid with us. In short order, we learn that she became pregnant at 18 and gave up her child for adoption, after which she finished college, got her advanced degree, met and married Sam Roth and turned into the paradigm we see today.

Jody Goodman continues to visit Roth regularly, and the sessions become increasingly important to both women. Although Jody remains virtually unchanged by these meetings, Roth's interest in her patient progresses from unusual interest to downright obsession.

When Jody becomes seriously ill with a mysterious virus, Roth attempts to take charge of her treatment and eventually of her convalescence. After Jody improves, Roth violates every rule of the doctor-patient code by inviting Jody along on outings with her husband and sons, fantasizing and finally convincing herself that Jody is the daughter she surrendered more than 20 years earlier.

Although her notion has no more basis than the fact that both Jody and Roth's baby were born in the same month in Washington, D.C., Roth becomes totally and pathologically possessed by the idea that she's Jody's natural mother. Ultimately, Roth is driven to the edge of madness by her conviction, and that's where we leave her, in her office in the middle of the night, waiting in vain for Jody to come to her.

Although the notion of role reversal between patient and therapist is initially provocative, the pace of "In a Country of Mothers" is so slow and the outcome so inevitable that the novel never achieves the potential inherent in the premise. Instead, it becomes an inadvertently unsettling chronicle of the hazards inherent in the therapeutic process.

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