One mother of a strange story

FIC­TION Toronto-raised au­thor’s de­but spins tale of daugh­ter’s dis­cov­ery fol­low­ing the death of a par­ent

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - EL­IZ­A­BETH MITCHELL

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

BRIAN HUGHES/TORONTO STAR

Mothers and Other Strangers, by Gina Sor­rell, Prospect Park Books, 320 pages, $22.95.

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