Someone Not Really Her Mother: A Novel - Harriet Scott Chessman

This masterful and compassionate novel is split into a series of interlinked stories that tell the tale of Hannah Pearl. As Hannah’s memory of the present begins to fade, she increasingly inhabits the world of her ardent and frightened youth in war-torn France and England, while her memories of life in America with her daughter and granddaughters have almost been erased. Throughout the book each character must negotiate the fraught intricacies of memory, geography, and motherhood. The reader will discover and illuminate, with miraculous effect, all the pieces of this intelligent and dream-like puzzle.



The plot revolves around three generations of women in a Connecticut family: Hannah Pearl, her daughter Miranda, and Miranda's grown daughters, Fiona and Ida. Hannah's mind is slowly being robbed by dementia. Living in an assisted living facility, most days Hannah's reality often has her slipping back to the year 1940, when she was a young wife and mother trying to escape France during World War II. The growing frequency of these moments becomes painfully aware to the family when Hannah is brought to Fiona's Sip & See for her new baby and the sight of the newborn mentally transports Hannah back to the day she gave birth to Miranda. Hannah mistakes Fiona's child for baby Miranda and tries to keep anyone else from taking the child away from her. 


Meanwhile, Miranda becomes emotionally strained with the experience of being forced to watch her mother slowly fade away. The further Hannah slips, the more she reverts to speaking in French, which frustrated Miranda, who only learned minimal Latin and Spanish in school.


Love is difficult, bien sur. Yet one must love in any case. The world is terrible enough without it, in spite of its beauty: this light, this day, the trees burning yellow, gold, the white bird swinging past the window. 


Fiona often chooses to ignore her grandmother's worsening condition, while Ida desperately wants to know the full story behind the memories. She decides to research Hannah's history, hoping whatever she uncovers will inspire her writing pursuits. After finishing college, Ida takes a journalism job in Paris, France. Fiona, having traded her graphic design career for motherhood, is a little jealous of her sister's life abroad.


Chessman uses a similar "domestic snapshots" approach to what she did with the vignettes crafted in Lydia Cassat Reading The Morning Paper. The writing here is still nice, but lacks that moving blend of warmth and melancholy (at least the level of it, it's here to some degree) of Lydia Cassat. There are some pretty heartbreaking scenes though, such as Hannah going out on her own and getting lost at the pharmacy, or the flashbacks to the war years, the loss of her sister Emma, being helped by a pharmacy clerk named Emily and confusing her for Emma. 


I didn't find the characters of Miranda or Fiona terribly interesting. Though I understand the need for their presence in the plot, I would have preferred to have more of the story around Ida and Hannah, the relationship between them.