THIS IS MY DAUGHTER
By Roxana Robinson
404 pp., $25
Searingly real characters full of everyday virtues and forgivable flaws inhabit Roxana Robinson's new novel about divorce, remarriage, and the minefield of step-parenthood.
Despite the rarefied setting of East Coast WASP affluence, including old money, old school ties, and old bloodlines, the universality of these well-meaning people and their mounting predicaments will be recognized by most readers.
The heartbreaking realism of children trying to adjust to lives fragmented by divorce and their parents attempting to re-create happy, new families is potent and moving material in Robinson's hands.
Emma Goodwin and Peter Chatfield, both recently divorced, meet, fall in love, and marry. Each has a daughter from a previous marriage. Emma's three-year-old Tess is delightful, but Peter's seven-year-old Amanda is already exhibiting difficult traits. Her sullen shyness and silent distrust is in direct opposition to Tess's innocent trust.
Tess is so easy to love, and Emma finds herself favoring her own daughter, instead of including the prickly Amanda in her circle of affection, despite her honest resolve to avoid the pitfalls of step-motherhood. Peter's disappointment in his daughter is palpable; his bewilderment at her defiance and resistance is total.
Neither Peter nor Emma recognizes Amanda's resistive behavior as a cover for the dismay and desolation she feels, and moments of possible connection are repeatedly and unconsciously missed in confrontation and discipline. Their determination to forge a happy family often causes them to force issues both with Amanda and each other that gentle listening and forthright talking might have avoided.
These people are neither villains nor heroes, but thoughtful, intelligent individuals who often miss the right moment of communication and then wonder what went wrong.
The reader is completely drawn into the momentum of these characters' lives, rejoicing over small moments of victory and happiness and agonizing over the missed connections and misunderstandings caused by their instinctual reactions.
"This Is My Daughter" weaves through eight years of the family's determination to make a success of the second marriage, filled with new in-laws and grandparents, schools and vacations, clubs and parties in New York City's upper social echelons and island summer homes. Amanda's increasing remoteness and Emma's and Peter's guilt about their inability to understand or control her, spin the Chatfields to an inevitable, tragic climax when each may have one last opportunity to learn how to hold the family together in the happiness they all have desired.
Robinson knows all her characters well and infuses them with emotional authenticity, wisely rendering their foibles and strengths. Her depiction of the inner journey of the troubled Amanda is compelling, filled with understanding of the girl's descent into rebellious teenhood.
Robinson's prose powers the book with fluid elegance, illuminating the truths of her story and visualizing for the reader all that she sees.
Although the narration is in third person, one constantly has the feeling that the various characters themselves are telling the story, so artfully does Robinson move among their contemplations and emotions.
The final third of the book shifts into present tense, impelling us toward the Chatfields' ultimate test as a family. If the conclusion seems a little too pat, it's mitigated by the stunning self-awareness achieved by the main characters as they confront their deepest fears. Robinson has given us a story that is both uplifting and beautifully written.
* Verity Ludgate-Fraser teaches English at Berkeley Hall School in Los Angeles.