Murmuring voice speaks about a mother-daughter relationship

Enchantment, by Daphne Merkin. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 288 pp. $16.95. ``For we think back through our mothers if we are women,'' wrote Virginia Woolf. That is what Hanna Lehmann (and perhaps Daphne Merkin) is doing in this novel -- thinking back through her mother. Ms. Merkin opens up the heart of a family's life as she sets Hannah Lehmann to musing about her past.

The book opens as 26-year-old Hannah searches for a Shakespearean sonnet appropriate to read at her mother's funeral. But her mother is not dead -- she is, in fact, helping Hannah pick the sonnet. Typically, the two manage to use the occasion to exchange nasty remarks in nice voices.

Sensitive and unhappy, Hannah tries to think through the past, hoping to make sense of it, hoping to find some peace. She is part of an old, rich, Jewish family, transplanted from Germany to the posh Upper East Side of Manhattan. Two sisters, three brothers, an inflexible and demanding father, an array of household help only muddle the picture for Hannah, who is sure the problem is her mother.

``What I want -- and what I can't get -- is something organic, what my mother, (but for what reason?) can't give me: potato love, natural as earth, scruffy and brown, clinging to your roots, helping you grow fit and firm.''

But in the end, Hannah's sour distaste for herself gives way to charity when she says of her mother at last: ``Although I think of her as creating the gaps in me -- the disowned longings -- there are also the things she didn't overlook. Who's to say, finally, why the balance has tipped the way it has.''

Merkin imbues Hannah's voice with a murmuring tone that resonates long after she finishes speaking. Sister to sister, mother to daughter, these are the sweet and cruel childhood stories we confess -- trusting that to bring them to light will put them to rest.

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