Daughter: A Novel

Image of Daughter: A Novel
Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“an original and powerful novel that a reader won’t easily forget.”

Daughter juggles the impossible: It explores intense emotions with scary honesty yet also with flat, almost Dick-and-Jane language, while shifting back and forth in time across more than two decades. Thanks to author Claudia Dey’s extraordinary control, this juggling act mostly works.

For instance, as the book begins, Mona Dean’s erratic life is in more turmoil than usual because her father, Paul, a formerly bestselling novelist, has decided to confess to his wife, Cherry, that he’s been having an affair with his publicist. That might not be so bad, but Cherry is a classically wicked stepmother to Mona, and Paul tells her that Mona has been his confidante about his affair for weeks. Cherry then informs her and Paul’s daughter, Eva, who abruptly severs her previously close ties with Mona.

This prompts Mona to recall the weekend a few years back when Eva had traveled six hours round-trip to watch Mona perform the role of Ophelia in Hamlet in a theater school production. The last morning, when it’s time for Eva to leave: “Eva had packed her small suitcase. It stood zipped by the door. We talked. We watched the clock. Eva’s car would arrive any minute. The weekend had gone by too fast. There was never enough time. I heard myself speak those endearments.”

Is the staccato language intended to dig directly into the mind of the modern-day Mona as she tries to evade the pain of losing Eva?

The heart of the novel is the relationship between Mona and Paul, an almost unbearable mix of seduction, need, anger, and guilt.  

Twenty years earlier, when Mona and her elder sister Juliet were young adolescents, Paul had left them and their mother to marry Cherry, a Styrofoam heiress. In the ensuing years, he made only feeble efforts to keep his two daughters in his life. The girls’ mother attempted suicide. Cherry, for her part, sprayed Mona and Juliet with a garden hose at one point and demanded that they list every bite of food they ate while visiting.  

Still, when Paul calls, Mona drops everything and goes to him.

Through the course of the book and a series of life-altering crises, Mona bravely probes deeper and deeper into her feelings about her father. After Paul leaves the publicist and returns to Cherry, she writes to him: “You are intimidated by Cherry. And I pay the price for your cowardice,” even knowing, as she writes, that “I could hear his excuses, I could hear his excuses because I had heard them before . . . I was so totally in Paul’s service. You would think I was the cheat.”

Mona is the primary narrator, with occasional interludes from the points of view of Paul, Cherry, Eva, and a few others. There’s also the possibility that those interludes are in fact Mona’s guesses at what the others are thinking.

With so much drama already in the emotions and relationships, Daughter is marred by extra touches of melodrama. Cherry and Eva are cartoon villains who stand out awkwardly among the more complex characters. Did the author (a Canadian playwright, novelist, and actress) really need to include a rape, a near-fatal miscarriage, an abortion, a bloody fight scene, and two suicide attempts?

Yet overall, this is an original and powerful novel that a reader won’t easily forget.