Book Quote:

“It’s like — she’s slipping away from me.” I can’t express it. I’m struggling towards the words. “Sometimes when she looks at me, it’s like she doesn’t see, me doesn’t recognize me. She has this closed look… she’s my daughter — I mean, I gave birth to her, for God’s sake — but in some weird way I feel she isn’t my child.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Judi Clark (JUN 10, 2009)

In Yes, My Darling Daughter, Grace is a single mother living in London with her nearly 4-year old daughter, Sylvie. Sylvie is an interesting child. She has never once called her mother anything but “Grace” from the time that she started talking. She is completely phobic about getting any water on her face and she draws the same house over and over, claiming it to be “my house,” though the house looks nothing like the flat she and her mother live in. She says other weird things, such as accusing her best friend Lennie as being “not my Lennie.” And, she is very sad. Normal children are not sad.

Grace clearly knows what “normal” is. Her best friend Karen has the most pleasant family, a son, a daughter and her helpful husband Leo. A perfect, normal life. Karen is clearly middle class, if not upper middle class, a full time mom whose other friends are assumed to be of similar backgrounds. Karen and Grace met at the maternity ward, and this alone has driven this odd friendship; having girls born within days of each other, Karen decided that Sylvie and her daughter Lennie were “astrological twins” destined to grow up together.

In contrast, Grace and Sylvie live in a ground floor flat in the old Victorian Highfields neighborhood, which is now a red light district; it is what she can afford on her salary as a florist’s assistant. Grace is a creatively funky person, putting together Goodwill outfits that are a mish-mash of different materials and colors. The one thing that Grace is most proud of is that Sylvie is enrolled in the Little Acorns nursery, a prestigious nursery and like all the good nurseries in London, hard to get into. It is obvious that Grace enrolled Sylvie before she was even born as that is the only way to get in. This is the one thing that gives Grace confidence when she’s with Karen and her friends. Need it be said that Grace is the only single parent in this play group.

Unfortunately for Grace, Sylvie is a particularly difficult child. Grace is on edge much of the time hoping that Sylvie will give the appearance of a normal child, or, of more importance, that Sylvie has a reprieve from her ever-present sadness. Grace knows an outburst can be triggered at any second. Sylvie just doesn’t cry or scream; she has tantrums so severe it can induce vomiting. It is everyone’s opinion that Sylvie is old enough that she should be growing out of this behavior, instead she is behaving worse. Though Grace never comes off as a confident parent, deep down she does believe the real problem is not because she’s raising Sylvie on her own as others are too readily to give blame, but because there is something wrong with Sylvie; something beyond her reach. Grace is at the dentist when she reads an article about a researcher in the Psychology department at the local university who does scientific tests on paranormal occurrences. One example is of a little boy who insists that he remembers a previous life. There is enough in the article to make Grace think of Sylvie. She is called into the dentist chair before she has a chance to make note of how to get in touch with this Dr. Adam Winters who is doing the study.

Not long after this, Grace is looking at a male model in a magazine ad when Sylvie’s “face flicks from the photo to my face and back again to the photo, her eyes widening, brightening; then she flings herself against me. The side of her face and body are hot from the gas fire. She gives me a brief, hot hug. I can feel her heart pound. ‘You found it, Grace,’ she says. Her smile is like a light switched on…‘There it is, that’s my seaside, isn’t it, Grace?’” Grace is unsure as to what Sylvie means by this, for an instant even wonders if Sylvie sees the uncanny resemblance of the male model and the father she’s never met, which is the reason that Grace was looking at the photo. Sylvie insists that Grace carefully cut the photo from the magazine and tack it next to her bed. After this, Grace often finds Sylvie staring at it when she should be sleeping and sometimes finds it under her pillow. Though she is unsure what it all means, Grace does try to put a location to this seaside.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Pace-Barden who runs Little Acorns nursery has given Grace a warning about Sylvie’s worsening behavior. She recommends a Dr. Strickland and Grace is more than willing to give this a try. In fact she’s very optimistic, until the appointment is over and realizes that the doctor has decided she is the problem behind her daughter’s behavior. And when she discusses this with Karen, Karen hints at the same.

After one more difficult day in the nursery, Mrs. Pace-Barden decides to not wait for Grace to resolve her parenting skills, and informs her that Sylvie is out by the end of the month. At about this time, another incident occurs between Lennie and Sylvie, and Karen decides to call off the friendship. Desperate, Grace finds herself seeking out Dr. Adam Winters, although still reluctant to give any credence to this psychic phenomena. What kind of mother would believe this? Certainly, not her friend Karen. Yet, what if, this is the only way to make Sylvie a happy child?

“Sylvie, just stop this, okay? Stop all this nonsense. This is your house. This is where you belong. This is your family — just you and me together. You have to know that– you have to accept that. This is all there is Sylvie, this life we have together here.”

This novel is what I have come to call “mother suspense.” It is along the same veins as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Anne Ursu’s The Disapparation of James, Kathy Hepinstall’s Prince of Lost Places or even this author’s earlier novel, Postcards from Berlin, in which the story unfolds from the perspective of a first-person narrator and that narrator is making decisions from a mother’s point of view. Everyone knows that there is nothing more important in the world to a mother, than her child, and that is why there are so many stories to be mined. Unlike these other books, however, Grace is not an unreliable narrator, she just seems to lack confidence that the only answer to the core of Sylvie’s problems is a possible answer. “Normal” people think she is over reaching to explain Sylvie’s behavior so that she does not have to step up her parenting skills.  But she is a good mother, if not a desperate mother, and must follow this possible “past-life” explanation to its end. Although Dr. Adam Smith is enthusiastic to learn more about Sylvie, he too is a skeptic, but for his own reasons. He proposes an unusual “treatment” and without any other recourse, Grace decides to go along with it.

Because Grace is always monitoring Sylvie, (“Sylvie looks happy today.”), there is a subtle suspense that starts to build early in the novel. Because we are waiting, like Grace, for this happy moment to end. Each time is something unique, something that builds towards convincing Grace, and us, that this odd child just might be an “old soul.” I think we are convinced, at least I was, long before Grace that this is the way of it. This means that when they are in harm’s way, Grace should be listening to Sylvie and not putting her trust in someone who looks “normal,” something Grace is always seeking. As Adam Smith points out to Grace before they embark on the unusual treatment, that for there to be a possibility of a past life so strong as to haunt a child, then logically there must have been a murder.

The idea behind this book, is interesting. Are there children who remember their past lives when they are born? I think it is an intriguing thought and I like the way Margaret Leroy approaches this subject. Taking a “mother suspense” and giving it a modern Gothic twist.  Once again,  Margaret Leroy has written a unusual book which I truly enjoyed.

Judi Clark

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (April 14, 2009)
REVIEWER: Judi Clark
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Margaret Leroy
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read a review of:

Soldiers of Wife

Postcards from Berlin



June 10, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Family Matters, Mystery/Suspense, Reading Guide, United Kingdom

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