I don’t often read ARCs, but when I get a physical copy of an anticipated book from The Library Hotel I read it! The premise of Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife sounded so good to me that I’d been looking forward to it for months and was thrilled to see it offered during my stay in New York earlier this year. Unfortunately the experience was a bit more mixed for me than I expected from the synopsis.
Disclaimer: quotes and thoughts are taken from the ARC, and may not reflect the content of the final copy.
In the novel, Wendy Doe arrives in Philadelphia without any identification or memory of her life up to that point. After a few weeks of struggle to find a safe place to stay and an idea of how to proceed, she agrees to live at the Meadowlark, a place of psychological (specifically focused on memory) study. Lizzie, a brand new fellow at the institute and looking for a new research project, takes on Wendy Doe’s case. While studying her, Lizzie builds an unexpected friendship with Wendy, and a relationship with the man who runs the facility and oversees her project. Years later, Lizzie’s career has taken a sharp left, her husband is dead, and an eighteen year-old girl comes knocking at her door, claiming that her mother was Wendy Doe, who’s disappeared from her “real” life again.
“Wendy Doe, as capable of taking care of herself as she was without material means to do so: no money, no social security card, no ID, no chance of legal employment or government subsidy. Not ill enough to be permanently housed by the state, not well enough to house herself- the kind of liminal existence Strauss’s institute was made for. Strauss gave her a bed, an allowance, supervised liberties, in exchange for her willing participation in the research. Our research, he’d suggested Lizzie make a habit of saying, as if a pronoun could fool Wendy into believing she was studying herself.”
For a book that is actually everything the synopsis claims it to be, this was not at all the read I expected. I think the biggest thing to note is that Mother Daughter Widow Wife is not a mystery. The question of who Wendy Doe is and what has happened to cause her diagnosed dissociative fugue hangs constantly in the balance, but Lizzie and co. are not trying to work backwards to piece together Wendy’s former identity, they’re more interested in who she is at present. The dissociative fugue itself is being studied; this is not an attempt to return Wendy to her previous life or seek justice for whatever trauma incited the fugue. That would, actually, be detrimental to the study. And thus, there’s very little actual plot to the tale; rather the book is a more introspective, scientific and philosophic look at identity and relationships that straddle the line between personal and professional. Think Helen Phillips’s The Need, another science-y novel about identity that focuses primarily on the protagonist’s frame of mind.
In Mother Daughter Widow Wife, we have several protagonists, and two timelines, about 20 years apart. The chapters shift between the main perspectives and the crucial years. We see a few journal entries from Wendy Doe, addressed to her unknown “other self,” but otherwise the novel mostly focuses on the characters around her, their perceptions of Wendy and of themselves after interacting with her. The writing is intelligent, and I found many of the points made through the narration deeply interesting. It’s clear that Wasserman has done a fair amount of research into the science and history of memory (and beyond), but the result of this careful attention to facts and ideas is that the novel feels more like a series of thoughtful ruminations than a story with a proper hook. There’s so little momentum. The pace is so slow. We don’t know what we’re reading to learn or to see solved, because the stakes are low and the plot lacks a central question. Those with an interest in memory, psychology, or the history of “hysterical” women will likely have the highest level of enjoyment from this read.
“The brain takes its pleasure from remembering. Even a bad memory, after enough time has passed, feels like home.”
There is also a strong feminist focus, which works to great purpose in descriptions of the history of women who have been locked away and taken advantage of and cruelly “studied” essentially for men’s entertainment, but I found the modern applications less convincing. Much could be made of the patriarchy’s role in Lizzie’s career change and marriage, of Wendy’s treatment at Meadowlark, of Alice’s very existence, and more. But the book focuses on relationships and character dynamics to make these points, and this is where the theme falters for me. So much of the drama surrounding the friendships and romances begun and ended felt inauthentic to me. Forced, for the sake of commentary. I never believed that Lizzie loved her husband, which made her drastic decisions and responses revolving around him difficult to accept. While I could agree with Alice that seeking unhealthy relationships and exhibiting destructive behavior can be a normal reaction to major upheaval, she explores the way her questionable new lover is helping her to heal without acknowledging the accompanying damage. Wendy is undeniably in a vulnerable position, but her take-no-shit attitude and complete disregard for her “normal” self makes it hard to understand why she would choose to protect what she does, in the way that she does it.
I know I’m being vague, but revelations about characters and their relationships are the biggest “twists” Mother Daughter Widow Wife has to offer and I don’t want to spoil those by going into detail about the toxicity and lies involved in basically all of them. Ultimately, despite my great fondness for imperfect women, these characters seemed needlessly problematic (i.e. problematic in ways that aren’t interrogated to any sort of benefit) to the extent that the potential complexities of their emotional journeys felt undermined by their conflicting behavior. To what extent a reader believes a character and/or takes narrative statements at face value is certainly subjective though, so I’m sure other readers will have a range of different experiences in this regard, and I hope my disappointment will be in the minority.
“He says we, as if they are one person, and that one person is him.”
While I loved the concepts here and got along well enough with the writing style, the very intriguing individual pieces did not make for a compelling whole in my experience. I wouldn’t say this is a bad book at all, and I hope other readers will find more to appreciate in it, but while I was reading Mother Daughter Widow Wife I found it easy to put down and hard to pick back up again. Perhaps my expectations were too high.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. On paper, there’s so much that I should have loved about this book, but unfortunately, confusingly, the reality just didn’t pan out with any of the promise the synopsis showed. I so wanted to love this one. It’s certainly possible the final copy turned out a bit more exciting (I believe it is out now!), but I don’t think I’m invested enough to check it out.
The Literary Elephant