Homes’ Great Essay, On Adoption, Biology … Plus

Three years ago, A.M. Homes published a personal essay in The New Yorker called “The Mistress’s Daughter.” For a fiction writer, the inward turn was surprising, but this was no sappy, brooding piece of work; it was the story of Ms. Homes discovering her birth parents. Or, rather, being discovered by her birth parents, a sad, never-to-have-been couple who got pregnant not only out of wedlock, but while the father was married, with a growing family.

That essay—perfectly executed—comprises the first part of Ms. Homes’ new book. If you missed it the first time around, here’s a chance to catch up. I wish I could say that the rest of the book adds to the experience. Unfortunately, The Mistress’s Daughter bears all the symptoms of a nasty plague in publishing: It’s a book that began as an essay and should have remained an essay. There’s no reason to dress it up as something it isn’t.

The original essay is as suspenseful and deft as one of Ms. Homes’ short stories. (She’s a novelist, too, but short stories are her strength.) We meet Ellen Ballman and Norman Hecht—the biological parents who gave her away as a newborn—and are as horrified and brokenhearted for Ms. Homes as one can be for a stranger. Ellen never grew up; she’s as innocent and needy as she was at 22, when she gave birth. Ellen’s married lover, Norman, who was clearly captivated with her—and seems to be haunted by her still after 30-odd years—reveals himself to be a weak, cold man who refuses to see that he’s either one. Norman insists on meeting his daughter in hotels (a move with sexual overtones that would never—and do not—go unnoticed by a writer like Ms. Homes), and later, after asking her to take a DNA test to prove his paternity (which she does perfectly willingly), all but vanishes from her life.

Much of the story is told in dialogue—conversations with her mother (“You should adopt me and take care of me,” Ellen says) and her father (who stiffly ends every conversation with the blow-off, WASP-y phrase, “Fine thing”). Dialogue, both perfectly natural and refreshingly crisp, has always been Ms. Homes’ great skill, her preferred method of exposing her characters’ inner life.

THE SECOND, LONGER PART OF THE BOOK is sluggish and contrived. Ms. Homes all but abandons the ruthless investigation of her feelings about her parents (all four of them) and heads for far less compelling terrain: her extended genealogy. It’s a tale of immigrants and brothers and sisters and farms, with mixed-up last names and microfiches. (O.K., that’s an exaggeration, but there are a lot of dusty file cabinets here.) At the very end is a sweet tribute to her adoptive grandmother, who’s like a wise, seen-it-all character from a Doris Lessing novel. She died at 99, and Ms. Homes writes as if the pain and confusion of being adopted were made up for by the privilege of having known this great woman.

The Mistress’s Daughter is a brave book, despite its failings—one that will be devoured by other adoptees and their families, not to mention memoir-guzzlers. The first part is a must-read for any fan of Ms. Homes’ fiction. Although her work doesn’t tend to be autobiographical, learning a bit about her roots helps shed light on some of her imaginative choices. Here, for example, she emphasizes how much she and her father resemble each other, and how eerie it is for both of them. In The Safety of Objects, a young man kidnaps a young, tomboyish girl and begs her to behave like a boy, like his dead brother, Sam. The resemblance between the girl and his brother is almost unbearable for him.

A.M. Homes hasn’t had the easiest life, but we can be grateful for the strange and original body of work it has produced. (Her fiction, that is.)

Hillary Frey edits the culture pages of The Observer.

Homes’ Great Essay, On Adoption, Biology … Plus