Mother Daughter Widow Wife: A Novel

Image of Mother Daughter Widow Wife: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 23, 2020
Reviewed by: 

This is an unexpected novel, full of philosophical questions about how we become who we are, what it takes to become someone else, and how much power others hold over even our own understandings of self.”

Robin Wasserman, author of 2017’s Girls on Fire, sets her latest novel in two different time periods with multiple protagonists.

Almost 20 years ago, a woman walks out of her life in a dissociative fugue. The opening page introduces readers to the nameless woman’s blank state of being. “This body is white. This body is female.”

Named Wendy Doe, she ends up at the Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research. There, Dr. Benjamin Strauss offers to house her in exchange for studying her unique situation.

She agrees to becoming a lab rat to feed his curiosity.

Lizzie, a struggling graduate student, arrives at the institute as a fellow, taking on a single subject, Wendy. ‘“For the record, I’m not here to start a new life,” she said. “Just a new research project.’”

But in fact, Lizzie gets both.

Driven by questions of how we form identity, she engages with Wendy, part researcher, part friend. And finds herself falling in love with her supervisor, Dr. Strauss.

In the present, Lizzie is now Elizabeth, widow of the recently deceased good doctor. Her life is in a state of suspension, her career derailed, her husband gone. “I was forty-eight, and I was a widow. A woman who’d let my husband die on me.”

Then Alice arrives. She is the daughter of the woman Elizabeth knew as Wendy, the woman who recovered her memories less than a year after arriving at the institute, thus ending Elizabeth’s study and returning to her previous life as Karen Clark.

“Th first true thing she knew about her mother was the leaving. Her mother getting on a bus, her mother carried away.”

In Lizzie/Elizabeth we see the same character with the space of 20 years between them, effectively creating two separate selves.

The first, a graduate student, infatuated with her boss. The second, a widow with a clear understanding of her late husband’s flaws.

In Wendy/Karen we discover how the body of one woman can be two selves, neither knowing the other.

In Wendy, the fuguer, we see a free spirit, in Karen, we see a fearful mother who once abandoned her life, and now, in the present has done so again, an action that prompts her daughter to show up at Elizabeth’s door, looking for answers about who her mother really is and was.

The complex multiple point of view characters are tied together through themes and intersecting timelines.

Identity. Self. How the past informs the present, and what it means if the past vanishes.

And always, the danger of memory. How we recreate it, and ourselves, through the manipulation of what we choose to remember and how we frame it. “Even a bad memory, after enough time has passed, feels like home.”

Each character wants something. “Lizzie wanted to be wholly seen.” And seen she is, by Dr. Benjamin Strauss. “He was married . . . he was her teacher and her employer. He was the most remarkable man she had ever met, and he thought she, too, was remarkable. She was in trouble.”

Alice wants to be someone else. She arrives to find answers about her mother, vanished again in the present, and struggles instead to become someone new. “You change by making one decision you wouldn’t have made before . . . You are what you choose, right? All you have to do is choose different.”

And in that moment of choice, she becomes Anonymous. Someone unknown and different. She moves back and forth between staying with Elizabeth to learn about her mother, and sleeping with a man she barely knows, building a new identity for herself, a woman with an invented past.

Wendy wants to live solely in the present, part of why Dr. Strauss’s offer appealed to her 20 years ago during her fugue.

“I asked him if he thought he could help me remember. He asked if I wanted him to. ‘No.’ I liked that he seemed unsurprised. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Frankly, you’re of no use to us once you get your memories back.’ I liked that too.”

But can a person truly live solely in the present? “The human brain operates on a delay. It takes one and a half seconds to process what the body experiences. Consequence: there is no such thing as living in the moment.”

Hanging over all of these women is the shadow of Dr. Benjamin Strauss. Is he a savior or a monster? Perhaps a man can be both.

This is an unexpected novel, full of philosophical questions about how we become who we are, what it takes to become someone else, and how much power others hold over even our own understandings of self.

Mother Daughter Widow Wife is not an easy read, but it’s a compelling one.