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Mothers and Daughters

The mother-daughter relationship is so often fraught, highly provocative, and is deftly explored in three novels that I listened to by sheer coincidence one after the next. In the trio, the daughters are the protagonists, Lucy in Elizabeth Stroud’s My Name is Lucy Barton, Sophia in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, and Veblen in Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, all entwined with their mothers, clutched in their grip. Sophia and Veblen eventually free themselves from the clutches, even as Lucy yearns for more of it, which is to say, she, too, is held captive.


Perhaps Sophia, the failed anthropology student, speaks for the triumvirate. Always in search of questions and topics for this field study or that, she finally realizes that her relationship with her mother, a pathological one at that, is the question that she must take on, an ethnography that in the end allows her to see that she must shape her own culture, understand her own rhythms, and resonate with them.


What made Hot Milk so riveting, haunting for me was Levy’s evocative and equally ironic descriptions of place, and her use of the Spanish doctor and German seamstress who were the keenest observers, the ones conducting their own field studies of Sophia. I was there, on the beach in an economically-depressed area of Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, and like Sophia, felt the stings of the ubiquitous jellyfish known as “Medusas.” Yet the writing is spare, not quite as spare as Stroud’s, but so powerful.

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