MOTHER DAUGHTER WIDOW WIFE
By Robin Wasserman
This artful meditation on memory and identity centers on a woman who has just arrived at the Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research in 1999. Wendy Doe has no identification, no memory and no one looking for her — who is she?
Lizzie Epstein is a bright young research fellow at the institute. At the behest of the Meadowlark’s founder, Dr. Benjamin Strauss, she decides to focus her work on Wendy Doe — a decision that will change the trajectory of her life, not always for the better. Strauss, who is brilliant and proud of it, becomes the center of Lizzie’s orbit. She begins to lose track of whether she’s smart and curious or whether she’s those things only when Strauss says that she is. By contrast, the men in the book are blissfully static. “A lifetime ago I was somebody else,” says a grown-up Lizzie. “Benjamin was still Benjamin. Benjamin was a constant, axiomatic.”
In the novel’s other timeline, set in the present, the woman who Wendy Doe has become in the intervening 20-odd years has gone missing again, this time presumed dead. Her daughter, Alice, searching for answers, finds Lizzie — now Elizabeth, Strauss’s widow. Alice triggers Elizabeth to dig up answers of her own and finally face the reality that Strauss might not have been such a wonderful mentor (or husband) after all.
The polyphonic narrative structure feels suitable for a novel that draws heavily on musical composition, particularly Bach’s fugues, which Wasserman adeptly uses to illustrate the tractile nature of memory. And though the middle of the book requires some patience, there are plenty of philosophical threads to tease out and ponder along the way: Why do we assume continuity across time, but not space? Is it logical to assume that our past self is the same as our present one? Can there be a self with no memory? Why do we forget some memories and remember others and if what we remember shapes us, would we be entirely different if we remembered differently?
The lives of the four narrators — Lizzie, Wendy, Alice and Elizabeth — intersect to reveal one big, satisfying secret, a truth that resolves one of Wasserman’s burning questions: What would happen if we could convince ourselves that our most traumatic memories occurred to someone else? The answer: Forgetting, no matter how complete, isn’t the same as erasure.
Wasserman’s ability to weave big ideas seamlessly into plot is impressive. The result is a warning against the dangers of letting others warp our identities while remaining cleareyed about the importance and inescapability of human connection. Even Wendy, who acts as an allegorical baseline against which the novel’s other women measure, only exists because another woman lost her mind.
The most nuanced relationship is between Lizzie and her childhood best friend, Gwen. Their friendship fractures as Gwen becomes a mother and then again as Gwen holds a mirror up for Lizzie: Look at who you are; now look at who you are with Strauss. While Wasserman doesn’t end the book with the same bloodshed that capped off her adult debut, “Girls on Fire,” she still leaves readers with the feeling that erosion of self is a fate worth fearing.