Review: Mother Daughter Widow Wife

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.

motherdaughterwidowwifeIn 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

20 thoughts on “Review: Mother Daughter Widow Wife”

  1. Great review! I’m intrigued by the synopsis, but it’s really good to know that this novel isn’t quite what the synopsis claims. I find it kind of jarring and disorienting when a book doesn’t match the synopsis, especially mysteries! (this comment is very much influenced by the fact that I’m reading Death in Her Hands, which is WAY less of a “mystery” novel than I was expecting based on the synopsis).

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    1. Ah, I saw someone else mention that about Death in Her Hands and was surprised, the synopsis makes it sound SO mysterious! I hope you’re having a good time with it anyway, I’m very eager to read that one. Looking forward to your thoughts! 🙂 I can see how technically it’s a marketing success if the synopsis puts the book into readers’ hands, but it really seems to detrimental to the whole process to mislead the reader, especially about genre. I think Mother Daughter Widow Wife has plenty to offer the reader, but a mystery is not one of those things! I hope you’ll enjoy the commentary and characters, and have a better time with it overall than I did. I’d love to see more perspectives on this one.

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      1. I hope you’ll enjoy Death in Her Hands! Knowing not to expect a traditional mystery novel will probably make it more enjoyable (just as I suspect knowing that about Mother Daughter Widow Wife will also make that read more enjoyable). And I have similarly conflicting feelings re: misleading synopses!

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  2. Great review! I am sad that this didn’t wow you, and honestly it sounds like not my kind of read. I saw Hannah mention Death in her Hands in the comments and it seems like a trend to write mysteries that aren’t mysteries but more of a philosophical book or a study of the state of mind. So interesting but frustrating a trend! At least the fact that they’re marketed in a “this is a whodunit but literary” way is quite frustrating to me.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, it is a frustrating trend. Especially considering that readers might end up liking the books more if they have the right idea of what to expect! There is nothing wrong with a literary book about female experiences with memory and identity, but the fact that I kept looking for clues and unanswered questions made it hard to enjoy the book for what it is. I’m glad I have a better idea of what to expect with Death in Her Hands so hopefully I won’t be quite as disappointed with that one!

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  3. Just last night in my book club we were talking about how readers who love a plot-driven novel are not keen on books that are more focused on a character; however, I think that’s too binary. I’ve read books in which an interesting character makes the whole story, even if little happens. But I’ve also read books in which some snobby people float through life and bemoan how they are full of ennui. I think there’s got to be something in the middle between aimless plot and pretentious traipsing.

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    1. Yes! I think both plotty and more character-driven novels can be done well, depending on how they’re written, but I think the key is making it clear to readers which one they’re going to get! And I agree, while stories can be done well with either extreme, the best ones do seem to hit an appealing balance between action and introspection.

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    1. Thank you! I was so excited about the synopsis for this one, I wish I had gotten on with the book a little better. I’ll be interested to see some other reviews now that the book is out!

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  4. Robin Wasserman’s Girls On Fire did not work for me at all, so I’m not surprised this was disappointing, although my problems with her debut were a bit different!

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    1. Oh no! I’m curious about what didn’t work for you with Girls on Fire? I did wonder whether I might get on better with Wasserman’s previous book or future work, since my issues weren’t directly related to her writing style, but it doesn’t sound particularly worth the investment!

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      1. Thanks for the link! It sounds like I’m better off waiting for Wasserman’s future publications if I try her work again at all. That representation of teenage girls as ‘fragile and dangerous, frightening and vulnerable’ (GREAT description btw) has definitely been done, and is not a depiction I would relate to or even find interesting at this point, tbh. And lesbian relationships as shocking twists should not still be happening! I’m glad you added some other recommendations to your review though, I’ve been curious about Sittenfeld’s novel, Prep, so I’ll happily be adding that one to my TBR with your endorsement!

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      2. I had such a good time with Sittenfeld’s Eligible, the Pride and Prejudice retelling, but didn’t have such good luck with her short stories a year or two ago. I’ve been unsure of where to go next with her work, so this is a very welcome recommendation! 🙂

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  5. Oh nooo I was looking forward to this one! And I’m bummed it isn’t really a mystery, and it’s not even fast-paced! I usually like novels with ‘problematic’ women but if they’re needlessly problematic, then it’s just grating. Thanks for your thorough review; I might just skip this one instead!

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    1. It’s possible you could have a better time with it than I did if you know going in not to expect a fast-paced mystery, but I think the execution is just not as impressive as the premise, unfortunately. I’d probably recommend Wasserman more as an author to watch than to pick up immediately. At the sentence level her writing is strong and intelligent, but she seems to focus more on those individual moments than the story at large, to its detriment. I had such high hopes, but it didn’t quite pan out for me!

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