The Good Daughter is Alexandra Burt’s second novel and like her first explores motherhood and memory. This time the focus of the narrative is Dahlia, the daughter, whose relationship with Memphis, her mother, is complicated. She loves Memphis, but harbors anger and resentment over the many secrets her mother keeps and their effect on her life.
Dahlia’s earliest memories are of life on the road, a transient existence as her mom traveled from dead end job to dead end job, of being “home-schooled” with the Columbia Encyclopedia, of moving always onward but never forward. Her mother called her Pet until they moved to their final stop, Aurora, Texas. From then on they were no longer Mom and Pet but Memphis and Dahlia Waller. They stayed in Aurora until Dahlia left after high school, frustrated that she could not go to college for the same reason their jobs and lives were so transient. Paperwork. More precisely, the lack of paperwork that doomed Dahlia to low paid under-the-table jobs.
Determined to finally wrest her mother’s secrets from her, Dahlia returns to Aurora after fifteen years. Her mother seems to be coming undone. To add to the tension, while out jogging, Dahlia discovers a woman who had been left for dead. Her discovery saves the woman’s life, but arouses questions about a possible serial killer. Worse, she begins to have visions, hallucinations, or seizures depending on whom you’re talking to. They are either brought on by psychic ability, schizophrenia, or a blow to the head, again depending on whom you are talking to.
Meanwhile, Memphis is falling off the edge, but at least she begins to start talking, though not about Memphis and Dahlia. Instead she tells the story of a young woman named Quinn, her marriage and her friendship with a childlike young woman named Tain. There’s a lot of pain in those stories, those memories, but perhaps they will reveal more than Dahlia ever expects.
I very much enjoyed The Good Daughter. It explores how trauma can travel from one generation to the next and how far someone may go to protect their child–and how the bonds of mother love can be forged in steel. Burt explores many ideas. This makes for a richer story, but Burt wove in so many threads that some of them were tied off quickly and summarily, making me think they were not needed in the first place. For example, you could pick out and unravel the serial killer story thread and still have a whole cloth.
It is odd, but the character with whom I most identified is Quinn. She’s a bit ruthless, a lot damaged, and yet she perseveres. She has grit. Dahlia seems a bit obtuse at times. She’s looking at all the threads and never makes manages to loop them together. Solutions are handed to her by Bobby and Memphis while Dahlia refuses to let the penny drop. That’s the best interpretation and I will stick with it, because I think she is smart enough to have seen the penny, seen the direction it was traveling and known where it was going to land, but could not face the pain of it landing on her heart.
There is so much to think about in The Good Daughter. I imagine book groups across the country discussing Quinn’s actions, Memphis’ choices, Dahlia’s dawdling and how their stories come together from all sorts of perspectives. It’s just that kind of book, the kind you want to talk about. The main characters are deeply developed and we care about them. There is a curiously languid mood for the story. Curious because after all, there is a serial killer out there and Dahlia really needs to get a birth certificate and a social security number one of these days so she can get a real job. Nonetheless, I don’t know if it’s the Texas heat, the slow moving cycles of rural living, or just the pace of Memphis recollections, but there is this deliberate, unhurried, languor that only heightens the tension as Dahlia, slowly, slowly, slowly comes to understand her mother.
The Good Daughter will be published on February 7, 2017. I was provided an e-galley by the publisher through NetGalley.