If you believe in the theory that some people are drawn to careers in the mental health field because they are struggling with their own unresolved emotional anguish, you won't be dissuaded by A. M. Homes' "In a Country of Mothers."
Here, a psychiatrist who is remarkably dense about her own motivations engenders a relationship that does real harm in the name of motherly love.
Claire Roth is the analyst, and she is a woman who has never come to terms with her own painful secret: As an unwed college student, she bore a daughter, and, at her parents' urging, placed her for adoption.
Now married to an uncommonly understanding (and somewhat underappreciated) husband, and mother to two rather spoiled young sons, she is 40-ish and restless, feeling cramped by her small New York apartment, the depressing lives of the people she counsels and her sons' demands.
Uneasy that she's not making the grade maternally, Claire is particularly vulnerable when a new patient gives her the chance to be the mother she has always wanted to be -- and, she soon grows convinced, to the very daughter she never thought she would see again.
Jody Goodman is the young woman. With one foot in the film industry and one still planted firmly in her Maryland home -- a truly awkward straddle -- she is, at 24, already a veteran of years of therapy. Funny, weird, artistic -- imagine Melissa of "thirtysomething" at twentysome- thing -- Jody is terrified of cutting loose from her adoptive parents, yet eager to begin her career.
She decides that what she needs is just a little retooling of her psyche. So she calls the Manhattan therapist recommended by her former analyst.
Bad move, Jody.
Actually, Jody is prone to bad moves. She gives up a promising New York job to enter film school at UCLA, and winds up with a mysterious virus that nearly kills her. She gets involved with an offensive young man whose bedroom manner literally makes her vomit.
Initially, she just wants to discuss her ambivalence about flying to California and entering UCLA. But she quickly allows herself to be drawn into intensive therapy with Claire, and though she's no stranger to the couch, acquiesces when Claire takes her way beyond the boundaries of a doctor-patient relationship.
Claire, obsessed by her belief that Jody is her daughter, proceeds to upend all the characters' lives. Overwhelmed by a late flowering of the nesting instinct, she sneaks out of her apartment and office to look at houses in suburbia, furtively visiting real estate agencies like a john searching out brothels.
She brings Jody into her family's circle, alarming her husband, confusing Jody's well-meaning but unsophisticated adoptive parents and angrily blocking out the questions raised by her own analyst, who rather mysteriously disappears as a character just when Claire (and the book) needs him most.
His rationality is needed, because as the story's pace quickens to its unpleasant denouement, we are left with the feeling that the characters, and the book itself, have spun out of the author's control. Jody grows ever more self-abusive. Claire finds her nest, but at its heart she discovers emptiness.
The book succeeds in presenting two compelling women, each searching for the connection and direction that will give her life real purpose.
But while it raises perplexing questions about the nature of mothering, it ultimately stumbles, leaving Claire, Jody and the reader in a limbo of failed expectations and unanswered questions.
Title: "In a Country of Mothers"
Author: A. M. Homes
Length, price: 272 pages, $22