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In adoptee's memoir, an abundance of difficult twists

The Mistress’s Daughter, By A.M. Homes, Viking, 238 pp., $24.95

A complex anger and a hunger for truth drive this memoir by critically acclaimed novelist A.M. Homes ("The End of Alice" and others). The anger is directed mainly at her status as an adoptee ("I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken") and at the irresponsibility of her biological father.

Adopted at birth, Homes at 31 hears from her adoptive mother that her birth mother wants to contact her. Warily, she allows the birth mother, Ellen, to write to her through a lawyer. She learns from Ellen that her biological father was named Norman; that Ellen worked for him in a clothes shop at age 15; that he promised to marry her when she was 17 and to get a divorce; that he had four children, a Jewish father, and an Irish mother; and that he was now prominent in Washington, D.C. Homes then phones Ellen and, from further conversations, infers that Ellen was abused as a girl: "I get the sense that something was happening at home involving the stepfather, and that the mother knew and blamed her for it -- which would also explain . . . why Ellen as a teen, was propelled into the arms of a much older, married man." When Ellen got pregnant, she and Norman got an apartment, but he returned to his wife.

Homes writes to Norman and, failing to hear back, stalks him. "I am a detective, a spy, a bastard. The house is large; there is a pool, a tennis court, and a lot of cars in the driveway." She publishes a novel that year, a local review appears, and suddenly he calls, causing her to wonder, "if I'd been flipping burgers . . . instead of writing books, would I have ever heard from him?" They meet in his lawyer's office. They take Polaroid pictures. She signs his copy of her novel. There is a creepy, sexual attraction. He also tells Homes that she is eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. He proposes a blood test as proof of paternity. At the lab, she feels, "I am letting my flesh be punctured to prove that I am of him. It is beyond sexual."

Before he gets the DNA results, they meet in hotels. His wife is jealous. Homes protests: "Ellen thinks I'm her mother, Norman thinks I am Ellen, and I feel like Norman's wife thinks I am the mistress incarnate." The test proves positive, and she is further incensed by Norman's refusal to tell his children about her.

Homes finally agrees to meet with Ellen, only to feel defensive before a woman who resembles Dusty Springfield. She will never see her again.

Norman tells Homes that he and his family are moving to Florida. In response, she writes him saying that she resents being kept a secret. Her letter is opened by the wrong person and prompts a family crisis. From that point on, "We all drift -- estranged."

Three years pass, and Ellen dies. Homes attends the tacky funeral in Atlantic City, finds Ellen's house, and goes through her ragtag possessions, filling boxes to take home and struggling "to narrate the confusion, the profound loss of a piece of myself that I never knew, a piece that I pushed away because it was so frightening."

Afterward, she calls Norman, and he says that he had known Ellen was sick, that she wanted him to ask Homes to donate a kidney, but he had said no, and offered his own instead. Homes doesn't believe him. "I believe . . . he said no at first and then agreed to ask me and told Ellen that I'd turned her down. That would explain . . . why I didn't hear from her before she died."

She is further enraged at Norman, but from this point on, the memoir flounders. She sympathizes more with Ellen as she searches through the boxes, learning of debts, and a suspended sentence for falsifying documents for mortgages "worth tens of millions of dollars." Homes wonders: "Did she have a pathological need to make a deal?" Thinking of the Norman affair, Homes tries "to inhabit her [Ellen's] experience: She wants something else, something more -- more than she wants him -- but what she gets is sex, and then he's gone." Unfortunately, this doesn't deliver a deepened vision of Ellen.

Homes then recounts her genealogical search, through the Internet and through hired researchers, for Norman's and Ellen's parents and great - grandparents, believing that "every life lived is of interest," and "that if I consume information, I will be able to inhabit it , I will feel more complete -- not realizing that perhaps the exact opposite is just as possible ." The information she finds is inert.

As an extension of her genealogical adventure, she tries joining the Daughters of the American Revolution, only to learn that she needs proof of paternity, which Norman now refuses to share. She goes public, telling his story in an article for The New Yorker (the first section of this book), not meaning to expose him, she says, so much as to fight for "adoptees' rights to access and join their own heritage."

At the memoir's conclusion, Homes celebrates matriarchy in the person of Jewel Rosenberg, her adoptive mother's mother. "It was the death of my grandmother that compelled me to try to have a child of my own . . . I started at 39, and in the end it took two years, and thousands of dollars, the best of medical science, and two miscarriages before my daughter was born." Homes ends her agonizing search by becoming the mother of a biological daughter: "I thank all of my mothers and fathers, for she is my greatest gift."

Given this abrupt, redemptive clincher, I wish that we had more of Jewel and the adoptive family on the page; that Homes affirmed that spiritual bonds were stronger than blood; and that, overall, Homes's vision was more generous when it comes to "inhabiting" the experience of others.

DeWitt Henry is author of "The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts" and co-editor (with James Alan McPherson) of "Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men." He teaches at Emerson College.