"Somebody Else's Daughter"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage SEP 5, 2008)
“He suddenly thought of Claire Squire--the feminist—and scoffed out loud. Feminists. Uptight bitches. They used to show up outside his studio in Chatsworth with their picket signs—as if shutting down the multibillion-dollar industry was even a remote possibility—and even if they did shut it down, there’d still be a plethora of women with the decency to offer their bodies for the good of mankind. And most of them weren’t complaining. The women who performed in porn films were a spectacularly complicated breed of female; they didn’t mind getting their butt spanked for eighty grand a year, plus benefits.”
Set in the affluent Berkshires area of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Brundage’s marvelous second novel Somebody Else’s Daughter examines a handful of characters connected to the elite private Pioneer School. With a steep annual tuition fee of nearly $20,000 a year, Pioneer insulates and protects its students from the ugly realities of life and guarantees that the sons and daughters of the affluent will mingle only with those from a similar background. In Somebody Else’s Daughter, the "protection" offered by the school is breeched in various ways, and the lives of the characters are irrevocably altered.
Pioneer’s headmaster is Jack Heath. While his vision, standards and charm make him extremely popular with the parents, his wife Maggie, who teaches at the school is not so well liked. More than a shade neurotic, she’s viewed as drab next to her gregarious husband, but the maintenance of their marriage is essential for the healthy image of the school’s management. Their only daughter Ada, however, is quite aware that her parents’ marriage is a lie--based in pathological avoidance.
The Goldings, one of the more affluent families, send their adopted daughter Willa to Pioneer. The Goldings have amassed their fortune from an LA based pornography empire and know first hand about protecting their precious daughter from the outside world. While the Goldings reason that the women who star in their porno films are well compensated, they protect their daughter from knowing the true source of their wealth. Living the lifestyle of American royalty, the Goldings seem to have little connection with the grimy source of their personal moneymaking machine.
The arrival of three newcomers to the area precipitates the events that take place. One of those newcomers is Nate Gallagher, who arrives at Pioneer to teach English and also to see if he made the right decision when he allowed the child he fathered to be adopted by the wealthy Goldings. Once a drifter and drug addict, Nate cleaned up his act, and no one would guess that he’s the same shiftless youth who handed his baby over to the Goldings years earlier. The second newcomer is the teenaged Teddy whose mother, an artist named Claire Squire, returns to the Berkshires after inheriting her father’s house. Enrolling Teddy at Pioneer is an attempt to reengage the teen in a life that is beginning to go off the rails. The third person who alters life in the area is Pearl, a young Polish prostitute.
While the Goldings and their wealthy friends occupy the highest echelon of Berkshire society, the Heaths are one notch below on the food chain. The Heaths (and Nate) mingle with the Goldings at some social events, but there’s a strict hierarchy that’s visible at all times. To the Goldings, Heath, Nate and their ilk are employees of a sort, and beneath the Heaths are the working class locals. But on the very bottom of the food chain, there’s an ugly world inhabited by drifters, criminals and prostitutes. The Goldings, the Squires, and the Heaths don’t normally "mingle" with those outside of their class, but Somebody Else’s Daughter is a novel of contrasts. Lives erupt when these strikingly different levels of society--the rich and the poor, the protected and the vulnerable--meet and interact.
The contrasting relationships between the novel’s characters create a fascinating dynamic. The Goldings and the Heaths, for example, both lead lives that are based in lies, and the spouses deceive in different ways. Anther point of contrast occurs between Willa and Pearl. Normally, a girl with Willa’s background wouldn’t rub shoulders with a prostitute, but when Willa begins work at a shelter for abused women, she meets and befriends Pearl. Willa’s privileged, insulated world is in direct contrast to Petra’s bleak situation, and in a bizarre twist of fate, Petra has become an accessible sexual surrogate for the unattainable Willa. Meanwhile feminist Claire finds herself in opposition to Joe Golding’s appalling attitude towards women, but they strike up a relationship anyway. Joe views sex as a simple transaction--nothing more and nothing less, and this allows him to be perfectly comfortable with his pornography career. By justifying pornography as just another way to make a living, he buries his conscience, and refuses to relate the damaging aspects of pornography to the women in his life.
I enjoyed Elizabeth Brundage’s first book The Doctor’s Wife, but this second finely crafted novel is superior in its superbly balanced character development. Somebody Else’s Daughter is topical and relevant, and while the author addresses some tough issues head on through her characters, readability and plot are never sacrificed. The book’s title seems to refer both to the issue of adoption, and also to the complacency, exploitation, and anonymity with which we often view sex workers in general.
- Amazon readers rating: from 49 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Somebody Else's Daughter at author's website(back to top)
"The Doctor's Wife"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage SEP 5, 2008)
“Annie felt a little sad just then, remembering the way she’d been in her twenties, the saucy journalist, back in the days when they were crazy with love, when the world seemed wild with possibilities. When his wanting to be a doctor had turned her on… What had once been shared now divided them. Like a lover, his work had stolen his heart. Now their lives were complicated like some elaborate jigsaw puzzle, and it was hard to sort out all the pieces. There was work, the mortgage, the children, the rigorous monitoring of the day’s routine, and a mood of indifference that had drifted into their marriage like a noxious gas."
The Doctor’s Wife is the first novel from author Elizabeth Brundage, and it’s a bold, topical novel that will immediately, and unfortunately, alienate some readers due to its subject matter. The novel concerns doctor’s wife, Annie Knowles, a professor with a background in journalism, who’s married to the successful but far too harried OB/GYN Michael. Michael is one of three partners in a private practice in Albany, New York. The Knowles have two children, and to outsiders their lives probably seem idyllic. They’re still fairly young, attractive, and well off, and their sprawling country home seems the perfect place to raise the two children.
But like many marriages, the surface impression belies reality. Michael is busy—too busy, and Annie is already feeling neglected when he agrees to volunteer one day a week at a local abortion clinic. While Michael claims he feels compelled to work at the clinic, there are hints that this allows him to escape his personal life and avoid the emotional demands of marriage and fatherhood. Annie is increasingly left to pick up the slack created by Michael’s absence. When Annie tries to lodge a protest about Michael’s lack of involvement in his children’s lives, he rather unfairly counters with arguments that as a feminist, Annie should support his work at the abortion clinic. Annie is quite correct when she tells Michael, “when it comes to us, it’s take a number and get in line.” And Michael’s expectations that his family should more or less function without his presence becomes increasingly more obvious when the Knowles begin to receive threats from an anti-abortion group.
Enter Simon Haas—a painter who works at the same college with Annie. He’s charming, a practiced seducer and he’s also married. His beautiful wife Lydia is the notorious subject of most of his paintings, and she’s also extremely unbalanced. At this point in his career, Simon is a has-been. He’s lost his creative spark, but when he meets Annie and they begin a passionate affair, his lagging career receives an unexpected boost.
Against the backdrop of adultery, Brundage weaves the issues of abortion and religious fundamentalism. The novel tries to be fair to both sides of the abortion question by seeing the issue through the eyes of Dr. Michael Knowles—a man who tries to provide humane care for the women who seek abortions for a variety of ugly reasons. Knowles tries to understand those who oppose his work, but ultimately decides it is “easy to practice war from the high tower” but that it’s impossible for him to deny patients who “were hardly able to take care of themselves.”
The Doctor’s Wife is a riveting, well-constructed suspense novel that maintains interest to the very last page. Brundage nails the subject of marital discontent—Annie, for example, is disgruntled with her spouse’s neglect, yet is content, at least for now, to accept the crumbs Haas can give her. The novel subtly contrasts the relationships between Simon and Lydia and the Knowles. While all four spouses have become alienated from one another, Simon and Lydia are ensnared in a volatile, explosive dependency. All four characters are flawed human beings (to one degree or another), and there’s no one to really "like" here. On the down side, as the plot thickens, some of the twists and turns defy credibility, and there were a couple of points when the characters—instead of taking action--seem locked on a conveyor belt towards doom. But that flaw in the novel’s denouement is relatively small in the big scheme of things. The Doctor’s Wife is still a riveting read and would make a good film if Hollywood decides to tackle the subject matter.
- Amazon readers rating: from 106 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Doctor's Wife at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Elizabeth Brundage
- Wikipedia page for Elizabeth Brundage
- MostlyFiction.com interview with Elizabeth Brundage
- Berkshire's Week interview with Elizabeth Brundage (2004)
- Reading Guide for The Doctor's Wife
- Reading Guide for Somebody Else's Daughter
- MostlyFiction.com review of A Stranger Like You
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About the Author:
Elizabeth Brundage holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received a James Michener Award. Before attending Iowa, she was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has been published in the Greensboro Review, Witness magazine, and New Letters. She is currently at work on her third novel and lives with her family in upstate New York.