Thursday, April 5, 2007

Maile Meloy's "A Family Daughter"

Maile Meloy's short stories have been published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Her first story collection, Half in Love, received the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters , the John C. Zacharis Award from Ploughshares, and the PEN/Malamud Award. Her first novel, Liars and Saints, was shortlisted for England’s 2005 Orange Prize. Both books were New York Times Notable Books. She has also received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her third book, A Family Daughter, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Family Daughter is mostly taken up with the text of a letter. A character in her fifties named Josephine, who lives alone in Argentina, has begun to lose her memory and doesn’t know what to do with her adopted four-year-old boy. She calls her business manager in Paris, but his wife believes (rightly) that he’s been sleeping with Josephine and confronts him while Josephine is still on the line:

Except for the expletives, they spoke elegant French, and Josephine listened for a while with a curious detachment, and then she hung up the phone. It was an ivory-colored phone with a dial on its squat base, and she watched it, wondering if Fauchet would call her back when he finished his fight. The phone remained still and quiet, crouching there on the desk.

Her daughter was her next resource, but she couldn’t risk a phone call in which Saffron, too, refused to speak to her, so she took out a piece of writing paper. “My darling,” she wrote.

I know you don’t think I have been the perfect mother to you, but I am writing to tell you that I do love you very much and I believe something is wrong with my mind. I lose track of my thoughts.

This morning, for example, I thought you were still a child, and I was still married to your father. But darling I’m not crazy. I have moments like now, also, when I see perfectly clearly who and where I am, and I understand what happens to me in these small episodes when I am disoriented, or confused. I believe

The servants take good care of the boy, but he can’t live with the servants forever, and they watch me, and see my confusion. You know that in Argentina, only the children may inherit, but I don’t remember the details of the adoption and I fear the government may not recognize the boy. I am looking into my will, and I am inquiring with Fauchet, whose wife dislikes me. I believe the child speaks no English, a further problem. You will I realize you will say I should have thought of all this before, but that is the situation now.

If you come to Buenos Aires I will arrange a car to the house. Please consider it.

All my love,

Your mother

Josephine’s first language is French; she speaks English fluently but formally, and the letter is hesitant, anxious about her daughter’s response. Having the characters, especially those who speak English as a second or third language, talk and occasionally write letters breaks up the hold that my own narrative voice has on the novel, and makes the sound of the sentences more interesting to me. So while the content of the letter is important — the adopted child is central to the novel, and brings all the characters together — the shift in language is the important way in which the page is a test of the whole.

Many different women struggle, in the novel, with their family roles: the good daughter has an affair, the wild daughter tries to settle down, the spoiled daughter doesn’t get what she wants, and the secret-keeping daughter writes a novel that may or may not reveal things about the rest of the family. So it also seems appropriate that this is a page in which someone makes a last-ditch appeal to her daughter, knowing she’s the one person who can’t really say no.
Visit Maile Meloy's website and read an excerpt from A Family Daughter.

--Marshal Zeringue