Every woman has a story to tell about her own mother-daughter relationship, some good, some harrowing, but the peculiar nature of each person’s story is great fodder for fiction. Seeing the similarities and the characters working with, through or in spite of the conflicts is interesting and often illuminating. Mary Rose Hayes has captured all of that intensity in her book What She Had to Do.
With a sense of purpose and obligation, and even love, Penelope returns to England to care for her ailing mother Imogen, in the final stages of cancer. Not unlike many children, she has an inexplicable love for her mother, despite the woman’s imperious, cold and often destructive behavior. Distance had been Penelope’s choice, crossing the ocean and the continent, marrying an “unsuitable” man, and not returning to England for years after a mysterious conflict fractured the relationship: we already know that she will be looking for answers and resolution to her own conflicted emotions.
With decisions made for full time care, part of the “what she had to do” to provide the proper circumstances for her mother, the aid of morphine and fear of a ghostly vision that appears only to Imogen unearth a long-ago series of events. Perhaps there is some tactile reason behind Imogen’s behavior when Penelope was a child, and she decides to dig deeper for the answers.
Slowly the author takes us through the discoveries and the effect they have on Imogen, Penelope’s thoughts about her mother, and on Penelope’s own views of her place in the world. A curious mix of sentiments, both British and American in feel, highlight the dichotomy that exists within Penelope even before her thoughts about her childhood and relationship to her mother are explored. The style of prose is lovely and smooth to read; great skill is used to maintain the tension on a slow build as both Penelope and the reader are searching for answers, and only able to catch a full breath after each new piece of the puzzle is revealed.
Dialogue and some eccentric yet beautifully drawn secondary characters add to the story, with clever asides, hints dropped and each presenting a very British sense of self and place. As often happens in situations that require the reevaluation of facts not previously known, Penelope isn’t able to make peace with her own feelings about her mother instantly, yet peace does come: to the relief of everyone involved.
A beautiful story that alternates between moments of “I know that feeling” and curiosity as to where we will go next, this is one of the better family relationship sagas that I have read. Be prepared to not want to put this book down, and to be sitting and reevaluating your own mother-daughter relationship long after.
Title: What She Had to Do
Author: Mary Rose Hayes
Genre: Literary Fiction, Literary Fiction /Family Saga
Published by: Cavendish Hill Press
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
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A secret and desperate choice, made by young Imogene Sayle during the rigors of post-World War II England, triggers shockwaves through three generations of a family.
Almost fifty years later Imogene’s daughter Penelope, married and living in California, learns of her mother’s illness and imminent death. Despite a toxic childhood, Penelope is driven by an abiding love for her beautiful, imperious and destructive mother and returns to England to care for her.
The story, told from Penelope’s point of view, is set in San Francisco and an English cathedral city, and covers the last three months of Imogene’s life.
While coping with the day-to-day challenges of her mother’s decline, Penelope must also confront self-doubts regarding her own marriage and career, her relationship with her college-aged daughter Caitlin, and the sudden and unsettling reappearance of an old love.
At the same time, through shifting childhood memories, newly-found war-time letters and chance disclosures by Imogene’s old friends and lovers, Penelope attempts to discover before it’s too late what went so wrong in her mother’s life, why she chose to remain deadlocked in an abusive marriage, and why, most importantly, she seemed to blame Penelope for all of it.
Before she can find answers, however, Penelope must ask the right questions.
A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.