When Liz runs away from her Baton Rouge home on the eve of her fifteenth birthday, her guilt-ridden mother, Laura, writes her a letter about her own adolescence, hoping to give Liz insight into her mother as a woman who has enough of her own precarious history to understand her daughter. In her painfully candid confession, Laura reveals the reasons her parents sent her away to a strict Catholic boarding school, how her forbidden love affair with a boy from the wrong part of town who then left to fight in Vietnam ended in tragedy, and, finally, the meaning of the enigmatic tattoo she wears below her right hip. In recounting Laura’s story, Bishop brilliantly captures a very specific time and place as well as the incredibly universal themes of family, love, betrayal, and the anguish of adolescence. (Synopsis taken from back cover of Advance Reader Edition because I really can’t tell it any better, so why bother trying!)
Letter to my Daughter by George Bishop is a remarkable little novel. Written from the perspective of a mom worried about her own teen-aged daughter and desperate not to be anything like her mother, it’s really hard to imagine a male author hitting the mark as well as this book does. I spent some moments remembering the Nancy Drew books I read as a kid, where Nancy’s girlfriend is called George, and I convinced myself that George Bishop was a woman. (Even though the back of the book only refers to him as him or he.) I googled, and nope, as the book cover states, he is who he is. Hmmm…okay, now I’m convinced he grew up in a household with at least 5 sisters. This guy knows mother/daughter relationships in a way that’s almost spooky.
Of course its no secret that all mom’s want a close relationship with their daughters, and its not always something that we can attain. The line between mom and friend is a difficult one to straddle, and as mom’s we frequently keep so much of our pasts from our kids. It’s not because we think they are destined to repeat our mistakes, or even that we think they will or won’t learn from our mistakes. It’s more a desire to protect them from the things that can hurt them. When we expose the heartbreaking parts of our lives, the really painful things that we’ve either done or had done to us, will it help our kids understand we have empathy for them and open the lines of communication? Or will it merely make our kids look at us with a more jaundiced eye, make us lose stature in their eyes? I think these questions are ones that most parents grapple with at one point in time.
Letter to my Daughter doesn’t try to answer these big questions. Instead it gives us a personal peek into the life of a mother who is frantic with worry about her daughter and not sure how to help her.
“You never tell me, Liz, but I know. You’re fifteen, you’re a girl, so you hurt. It’s the fate of all girls, and it’s what in the end makes us women. Small consolation to you now, perhaps, but what else can a mother say? Things will be better. Things will be better. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, I promise.”This book has a slightly ambiguous ending, but it really works for it. It’s a novel I’d wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, especially the moms and grandmas of teenaged girls, and to the girls themselves. Laura’s story might not be their mothers, but it shows that we all have stories, unspoken and unheard.
(Quote taken from Advance Reader Edition and not checked against final copy for accuracy)
(Review copy provided by Random House Publishing Group)