Book Talk: *Letter to My Daughter*, by George Bishop

Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher, via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. *I am an Amazon Associate; purchasing this book or any other item via the links included in this post will generate a small referral fee/commission for me.

Letter to My Daughter by George 

Letter to My Daughter: A Novel
George Bishop
Ballantine Books (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0345515986 / 9780345515988)
Fiction, 160 pages

Opening Lines: “Dear Elizabeth,
“It’s early morning and I’m sitting here wondering where you are, hoping you’re all right.”

Book Description
: A fight, ended by a slap, sends Elizabeth out the door of her Baton Rouge home on the eve of her fifteenth birthday. Her mother, Laura, is left to fret and worry—and remember. Wracked with guilt as she awaits Liz’s return, Laura begins a letter to her daughter, hoping to convey “everything I’ve always meant to tell you but never have.”

In her painfully candid confession, Laura shares memories of her own troubled adolescence in rural Louisiana, growing up in an intensely conservative household. She recounts her relationship with a boy she loved despite her parents’ disapproval, the fateful events that led to her being sent away to a strict Catholic boarding school, the personal tragedy brought upon her by the Vietnam War, and, finally,  the meaning of the enigmatic tattoo below her right hip.
Absorbing and affirming, George Bishop’s debut captures a sense of time and place with a distinct voice. Letter to My Daughter is a novel of mothers, daughters, and the lessons we all learn when we come of age.

Comments: Mother’s Day weekend seemed like an appropriate time to read Letter to My Daughter, although strictly speaking, I’m not sure I’d characterize it as a mother-daughter story. It’s kind of a “mother-was-a-daughter-once-too” story.

Laura and her daughter Elizabeth are going through the rough patch known as “adolescence,” which can frequently be especially rough for the mother-daughter relationship. A particularly vehement argument – which we aren’t told about in detail – sends Liz out of the house and into the night, taking her mother’s car and her learner’s permit. As the day goes on without any word from or about Liz, Laura tries to cope with her anxiety by writing a long, detailed letter to her daughter – one that she hopes will help Liz understand that her mother really was a teenager once too, and that perhaps will give her some idea of who Laura is and where she’s coming from.

I have to be honest here: the premise of Letter to My Daughter just didn’t work for me. I understand the motivation of a parent to want her teenage child to see her as an distinct person (I’m in the middle of parenting Teen #2), but that’s not the teen’s perspective. Sometimes younger children are very curious about their parents – usually in the context of what the parents’ lives were like when they were the kids’ age – but that seems to wear off for teens. It’s painful to be on the receiving end of that, but in some respects it’s developmental and not personal. Teens lose interest in knowing who their parents are because their energy is channeled into figuring out who they are; like a lot of adolescent characteristics, it’s more about themselves than anyone else. (And having survived Teen #1, who’s now in his mid-20’s, I can say it does come back around eventually.) Laura seems to believe that if Liz reads this letter, Liz will see Laura better; I think she’ll be disappointed, at least at this stage in Liz’s life. If Liz re-reads the letter at, say, 21, it might accomplish that a little better.

Having said that, the story Laura tells of her own teen years is compelling on its own merits. She’s growing up in small-town Louisiana during the Vietnam War years, discovering love and herself and that things will always change. She makes her mistakes, and she seems to have gained some insight from them over time. George Bishop did a remarkable job in telling this story through the first-person narration of a female character; I found the voice entirely convincing. I was less convinced by why the voice was telling this story.

I wanted to like this novella more than I did, but I appreciate that it gave me a lot to think about.

Rating: 3/5

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