Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Mother Daughter Me," by Katie Hafner

Reading-wise, fiction has always been my first love by far. Novels, short stories are my reading life’s blood. But once in a while I enjoy a good memoir, and the one I just finished is a powerful one. Katie Hafner’s “Mother Daughter Me” (Random House, 2013) tells the story of her decision to invite her mother, Helen, to move from San Diego to San Francisco and live with her and her teenaged daughter Zoe. Helen has lived for over 30 years with Norm, but Norm’s daughter has just put him in a nursing home. Katie hopes that this three-generation household will bring her and her daughter closer to her mother, but unfortunately it doesn’t work out that way. In fact, the living together turns out quite badly. This should not have been a surprise for Katie, as her mother was a very neglectful, difficult parent, due largely to her alcoholism but also to her own unloving parents. When Helen and Katie’s father divorced, Katie and her sister Sarah went back and forth between them, and when Katie was ten years old, her father won custody of the girls, based on the mother’s binge drinking, promiscuity, and inability to maintain an adequate household for her daughters. Over the years, the mother and daughters have had a rocky but continuing relationship, and Katie feels that she and her mother -- who no longer drinks much -- are now quite close. Now over the course of less than a year, they realize the living-together experiment is a failure, despite therapy and other efforts to make it work. Finally, though, they reach a kind of rapprochement, with Helen living separately but nearby. This last piece of information may seem like a spoiler, and perhaps it is, but really the fascination of the memoir is the back story and the process, rather than the details of the conclusion. Hafner, a journalist and author of six nonfiction books, is a good writer, and expertly moves back and forth between the present and the past. We also learn about her own marriages, one mostly good and one bad, and her current far better relationship. A perhaps trivial but extra attraction of the story for me is that it takes place in San Francisco, and in an area of San Francisco that I know well (because my daughter went to school there for thirteen years); I can picture the streets, houses, hills, sights, and restaurants of the area; I also recognize some of the local personalities she mentions. Finally, an important feature of this memoir is that Hafner strikes just the right note: she is candid about what she has been through, but she is also thoughtful and tries to understand the reasons for her mother’s neglect, to understand ways in which others were responsible as well, and to be open about her own bad choices too. And of course the topic of mothers and daughters is always of interest to me and to almost any woman; many of the recognitions relate to fathers and sons as well -- in other words, to anyone who is part of the tangle of family life.

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