One mother of a strange story
FICTION Toronto-raised author’s debut spins tale of daughter’s discovery following the death of a parent
How is it that one of the strongest and most basic of human bonds — the bond between mother and daughter — often becomes estranged and full of despair? It’s a question as old as motherhood itself and has spawned countless stories.
Case in point, Gina Sorell’s debut novel “Mothers and Other Strangers” (you’ll recognize Sorell’s name as an actress — she played, for one, the vegetarian waitress in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”). It’s an epic tale of a fraught mother-daughter relationship that spans decades and continents as the daughter seeks answers following her mother’s death.
Sorell sets the foundation of her story in a brief dramatic prologue ripe with intrigue and mystery. It’s the 1950s in South Africa under Apartheid and things are not going well for protagonist Elsie’s mother, Rachel. She’s in love with the wrong son of the wealthy family her mother wants her to marry into. There’s an accident, her beau is killed, and his older brother, who has always loved her from afar, proposes — with a gun to her head. Pregnant, she accepts to avoid scandal.
Fast-forward to the present day and Elsie, the result of that pregnancy, is heading home to Toronto from Los Angeles to tend to the aftermath of her mother’s death. Arriving at her mother’s apartment, she discovers intruders have ransacked it. Clearly, she’s not the only one who wanted something from her mother. But who are these intruders and what do they want?
And so, the unravelling of the story begins.
Not long after immigrating as a child to Toronto’s Rosedale in the 1960s, Elsie discovered her often absent hippy mother was different from other mothers. While Rachel did divulge some aspects of their past to her daughter — such as the f act she married her real f ather ’s brother and never told him Elsie wasn’t his — she rebuffed most of Elsie’s attempts to get to know her and failed to tell her about her involvement in a cultlike spiritual program called Seekers.
Still, life goes on and Elsie immerses herself in her dance and becomes a prominent member of a touring dance company; but she can’t break seem to break free from the dysfunctional pas de deux she’s doing with her mother.
She discovers her mother’s secret life when she innocently answers the phone one day. It turns out Seekers’ founder Philippe is also her mother’s lover. Guilt and the constant constraints of living a lie have combined, we now understand, to Rachel’s sabotaging both her and her daughter’s lives by not allowing her to be present; she puts her faith in Philippe instead of her daughter. For her part, Elsie learned at an early age to nurse her wounds rather than mine the wisdom within them.
This is the backdrop of Elsie and her mother’s relationship — it sets the stage for the remainder of the book, which is propelled forward when Elsie receives a box of photos and clues her mother left for her. This parting gift is Rachel’s most motherly act — it gives Elsie the chance to ditch her high-maintenance unhappiness and discov- er a freedom only the truth can offer.
Sorell covers a lot of ground — physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically — and deftly weaves it all into a complex plot.
The loaded narrative, tide-like in its advancing and receding movement, runs over an undercurrent of self-deprecating sarcasm and pity born of hurt and emotionally fuelled assumptions. In other words, the stuff many mothers and daughters allow themselves to get caught up in.
Sorell knows her stuff. Like Elsie, she was born in South Africa, grew up in Toronto studying drama and dance and lived in L.A. before acing the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Her background adds a wisdom and depth to the first-person narrative voice she uses, giving her story a genuine, memoir-like feel.
The jacked-up pacing in the last quarter of the novel does feels a bit of a cheat — given what’s gone before it — but only slightly diminishes the place of hope it lands on.
“Mothers and Other Strangers” is a cautionary tale of how secrets and lies sabotage the bonds between mother and daughter.
It’s a tough gig on both sides.
Elizabeth Mitchell is a Toronto writer and editor. Special to the Star
Mothers and Other Strangers, by Gina Sorrell, Prospect Park Books, 320 pages, $22.95.