Novel revisits the sins of the mother

By Caroline Leavitt
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2010

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Is destiny genetic? Can the sins of a mother become the legacy of her daughter? That’s the thorny dilemma propelling Dori Ostermiller’s hypnotic new novel about fate, fidelity, and forgiveness.

Traumatized as a child by her mother’s affair, Sylvia Sandon has vowed never to repeat her mother’s infidelities. But at 42, Sylvia is facing a moment of uncomfortable truth. Her marriage to Nate, a kind city planner obsessed with renovating their antique farmhouse, is faltering, and her own creative life as a painter is stalled. Her two daughters, 4-year-old Emmie and sulky, teenage Hannah, are exhaustively demanding and she’s fraying at the seams. When she meets Tai, an affable landscape artist whose son is one of her art students, passion sparks in a way that’s frighteningly familiar. The more Sylvia is drawn to Tai, the more she remembers her childhood and the way her mother, Elaine, shipwrecked the family for love.

Through flashbacks, Ostermiller reveals Sylvia’s damaged childhood and her role in keeping her mother’s long-term love affair under wraps. Elaine’s paramour, Mr. Robert, is a good-time guy who calls Sylvia “Little Twerp,’’ buys her presents, and makes Elaine ridiculously happy. But both Elaine and Mr. Robert cross a dangerous line in making Sylvia the go-between to their passion. Sylvia lies to her father, keeps her mother’s secrets, and even accepts the seemingly innocent mail Mr. Robert writes to her, which her mother keeps hidden in a drawer. But the more the adult Sylvia struggles to understand her role in her family’s self-destruction, the more her relationship with Tai heats up, putting her two daughters’ happiness at stake.

Partly set against the fire-shocked California coast in the 1970s, the age of “The Joy of Sex’’ and Helen Reddy songs about female empowerment, Ostermiller captures what it’s like to be a child caught in a sticky web of family drama.

Despite the raw shock of infidelity, there are no real villains here. The characters are all full-blown and complex. Elaine’s pinings for love and escape are achingly believable, and even reasonable, given the confines of her life. Sylvia’s father, a tightly wound doctor who can be violent, can also be tender. (In one poignant scene, he compares Sylvia’s hands with his, and yearningly insists she could be a surgeon like he is, not realizing that mirroring him is the last thing she wants to do.)

Raised a Seventh-day Adventist, Sylvia loses her faith as an adult, even as she still grapples for something to believe in. In this novel, what’s on the surface soon gives way to what’s lurking in the depths, particularly the unsettling hidden desires that take us out of our ordinary worlds. Or so we think.

Some of the symmetry of Sylvia’s present-day events with her past feels a hair too planned, and a few discoveries, particularly one involving e-mail, feel a little too set up. Still, these are small quibbles in a novel so rich with discovery. Our beliefs can blind us, says Ostermiller, and she reveals the heartbreaking difference between the lives we dream for ourselves and the ones we really live.

Reminiscent of Mona Simpson and Elizabeth Strout in the way Ostermiller expertly explores family dynamics and mother-daughter bonds, the novel gives a shattering portrait of ordinary people breaking asunder and helplessly trying to glue back together.

“The world comes apart quietly with the smallest, most ordinary gesture,’’ Ostermiller writes, but it should be noted that there’s absolutely nothing ordinary about this astonishingly moving and complex novel.

Caroline Leavitt’s novel “Pictures of You’’ will be published by Algonquin Books in January. She can be reached at


Mira, 384 pp., $14.95