Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman has a fantastic premise. Given how much I loved her previous book, I opened it with eagerness. Expecting a story that focused on the woman who could not remember her past, what I got was a story about exactly what the title lists minus the mother, and I could not stand two out of those three characters.
One of the things Ms. Wasserman does well is to tell her story using four different points of view. We see the world through the daughter, Alice, the widow and wife, Elizabeth/Lizzie, and the patient, Wendy. Four different points of view, only one of which has the benefit of hindsight. Alice is young, inexperienced, and in pain at the absence of her mother. Wendy has no memory of her past and therefore brings instinct to her observations without the taint of experience. Had Ms. Wasserman stopped there, the story would significantly improve.
Unfortunately, we spend most of the time in Elizabeth’s/Lizzie’s head, and it is not a good place to be. The young Lizzie and the elder Elizabeth are pretty awful. One would hope to see some maturity and growth in a character after eighteen years. This is not the case. Both young and old Elizabeth are obsessive, self-absorbed, and surprisingly lacking in emotional intelligence. I was not a fan of Lizzie’s unhealthy obsession with Dr. Strauss, and I was even more disappointed in the person Lizzie became for her husband. Elizabeth spends way too much of her story defending her life choices to herself and to her audience. By the end of the novel, I wanted nothing more to do with her.
The heart of the story is Wendy Doe. Seeing everything through her fresh eyes rips through all of Lizzie’s bullshit. Plus, there is something tantalizing about forgetting everything that made you who are. We always talk about fresh starts, and Wendy has the freshest start of all. Her scenes are, unfortunately, too short and too few.
Mother Daughter Widow Wife suffers not only from poor characters but also from trying too hard to be academic. So much of Lizzie’s/Elizabeth’s scenes include technical discussion of cognition and brain function. In a novel that is supposed to be about self-identity, the inclusion of the science of identity strikes the wrong chord and confuses the message.
Ms. Wasserman can write gorgeous, thought-provoking novels. Mother Daughter Widow Wife is not one of them. The self-identity portion is hit or miss, as Elizabeth never figures out who she is as an individual, and the daughter is of an age where everything she does is an attempt at trying to figure out who she is. As for Wendy, her scenes and perspective are fascinating but not long enough and purely temporary since Wendy disappears the minute her fugue state ends. In the end, you are left wondering what the point truly is and a tremendous sense of disappointment that the magic did not strike again for Ms. Wasserman.