A Bigamist's Daughter: A Novel

Image of Bigamist's Daughter
Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
Reviewed by: 

Alice McDermott’s first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter, was published in 1982, when the Village Voice praised it for avoiding the fantasy that “growth is everyone’s birthright, and true love is still the best of everything.” The book is indeed about bigamy, plus vanity presses. And, in 2023, the Village Voice is no longer with us—but vanity presses are still going strong. Aliens in Our Midst is a current Xlibris title, as is Scamdemic Plandemic (by the author of Have Knife Will Travel), and a children’s book called Dogs Have Fish Tales Too!

McDermott won the National Book Award in 1998 for Charming Billy. But that was all in the future when she wrote about Elizabeth Connelly, editor (in chief!) of New York-based Vista Books. Vista’s Manhattan location and busy office might suggest a conventional publisher but the fact is that any author with $5,000 is going to get his or her book published, and will receive a “congratulations” letter. The books will even be sent to prominent reviewers—who will send them right back to pile up in Vista’s back rooms.

Is this then an office-based social satire about the foibles of deluded Americans who’ve been told they should, you know, write a book? Yes and no. McDermott does have some wicked fun with that, but the main course of The Bigamist’s Daughter is set on the first page, when a pale young Southerner named Tupper Daniels is describing—and reading from—his unfinished manuscript in Connelly’s office. She’s sneaking glances at the clock, and figuring out ways to get a signed contract out of him, followed by his swift exit.

Daniels’ book is about a bigamist, based on someone he knew growing up, but he can’t finish it. He doesn’t know the real man’s back story, and it’s hanging up his search for a denouement. Until he finishes the manuscript, there’s nothing to sell to Vista, and the would-be author thinks Connelly will be his inspiration—especially after he learns her own father might have had a secret life. She has some half-remembered family stories. They start meeting, and one thing leads to another.

Connelly never reads more than 20 pages of Daniels’ book—her standard practice with authors—but she does get involved with, in various hotel rooms, the charming and apparently independently wealthy literary manqué. If McDermott’s book was a comedy, we’d know Daniels’ novel was terrible, and its author deluded. But Tupper is well aware he’s dealing with a vanity press, and the excerpts we read of his work in progress aren’t actually bad:

“He walked slowly into the liquor store, all of us watching him, and him knowing we were watching, came out with a bottle, got back into his car and drove out to his home that, as far as any of us knew, he hadn’t seen in the past year and a half. And all of us, despite what we’d been saying when we saw his wife—who was really only one of his wives—moving through us like a whipped dog, despite the pity we’d been giving her, the puzzled shame we thought we’d seen her wearing, despite that, any one of us, man, woman and child, would have sold his soul to have been there in that darkened house on the Fainsburg Road that night, to have been there waiting to receive him.”  

So the focus, far from the office, is on Elizabeth’s back story, which McDermott withholds and then gradually fills in. Her mysterious father was rarely around during her childhood. He dies in a distant city. Maybe because of that, Elizabeth grows up, in high school and college, without commitment, sleeping with and discarding a series of faceless boy-men. But then she is struck dumb by a man named Bill, glimpsed briefly during her senior year at college in Rochester. “A year later, he spoke to her,” McDermott writes.

Elizabeth’s frequently abandoned mother seems liberated by her husband’s death and moves to Maine, where she sheds some pounds and takes on a lover. Daniels is fascinated by all this, and the pair journey out to Long Island, where Elizabeth’s father supposedly sold a nice piece of waterfront property “for a song.” McDermott is good in the on-the-road stories, with skillful color and detail that’s lacking in the lengthy and occasionally tedious discussions of whether—or not—Dad Connelly was a bigamist. But the whole thing does move forward skillfully.

Because this is literature, we never learn if Daniels’ novel was published, or if it becomes—as he confidently proclaims—a bestseller. But there is an ending. Connelly, back in the office, talks a disgruntled author in off the ledge. She’s found her niche, defying the reader’s expectation that characters have to grow and learn from their experiences. Now in a vanity press book, a happy ending would be likely, even if minus the art that’s routine from an author such as McDermott.