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An international consortium of authors offers a fresh take on motherhood.

By Margaret Regan

MAY 11, 1998: 

Mothers & Daughters: An Anthology, edited by Alberto Manguel (Chronicle Books). Paper, $15.95.

JUST IN TIME for Mother's Day, a new collection of short stories wanders along
the sometimes tricky terrain of the mother-daughter relationship.

To the credit of its editor, Alberto Manguel, an Argentine now resident in Canada, the anthology of 20 works by authors both famous and obscure also ranges all over the geographic map. The stories offer up a plucky cleaning lady in Australia and a cold English officer's wife in colonial India. A cast-off divorcée in turn-of-the century New York is as alone as the studious London widow obsessed with finishing her late husband's lexicon. The tough daughter of a Carolina waitress and a Dutch teenager both grapple with abuse by a mother's new boyfriend.

The international perspective is downright refreshing, a nice change from those all-too-common short stories about late 20th-century American languor. Some authors are virtually unknown in the U.S., like China's Ai Bei, a political refugee, and Anna Maria Ortese of Italy. The famous, such as William Trevor, Irishman of England, are put into a new context (just two of the stories are by men). Trevor's is the difficult tale of the rigid Londoner who neglects her daughter while devoting herself to her husband's scholarship. Janet Frame, the New Zealander whose life history was told in the movie An Angel at My Table, is represented by "The Pictures," a short, sad tale of life in a boarding house for a working-class woman and her little girl.

Nor has Manguel limited the time periods: The book is as up-to-date as Dorothy Allison and Louise Erdrich, and as conscious of the past as Edith Wharton and Katherine Mansfield. From across the century and around the world, the stories chronicle women's lives, seen through the flickering prism of motherhood.

Wharton's story, "Autre Temps," takes a sharp look at the way changing mores can divide women of different generations. Mrs. Lidcote, a middle-aged divorcée, has been cut from "good" society ever since she left her first husband for another man. As the story opens a generation later, her daughter has done the same thing with few social consequences. But things have not changed as much as everyone is saying: Mrs. Lidcote gradually realizes she's still a social liability to her ambitious daughter. Wharton renders the horrifying moment of truth in typically masterful fashion.

An even older story, "A Mother in India," by Sara Jeannette Duncan, is surprisingly skeptical about the sainted notion of maternal instinct. Duncan herself was the wife of an English officer in India in the late 19th century, and her tale examines the strange custom the English had of shipping their infants off to the home country to be raised by relatives. Deftly written in the first-person voice of the coolly detached mother, the tale recounts the chilly reunion of mother and daughter after 21 years.

Allison, best known for the searing novel Bastard out of Carolina, writes again in "Mama" of the beloved mother who failed to protect her daughter from the violent sexual depredations of her stepfather. If works like Duncan's and Allison's reveal painful ambiguities from both sides of the mother-daughter divide, there are a few unenlightening clichés in the book as well: Dorothy Parker's "Lolita," for example, is a mid-century stereotype of the pretty woman who deliberately undermines her plain daughter.

Best of all, though (as authors should), these writers mostly ignore the tired ideas about motherhood that so burden real-life mothers and daughters. They track the territory in between the Mommie Dearests and the I Remember Mamas where women actually live; where relationships between mothers and daughters are as complicated and as varied as any of the other couplings that make up human society.

One of my favorite mother-and-daughter duos in the book is the Australian pair in Elizabeth Jolley's "The Last Crop." The mom here is a cleaning lady whose views on life are wildly at variance with the typical middle-class reader's. When her daughter refuses to go back to a school where the teachers look down on her, the mother cheerfully agrees to let her drop out. Mom enlists her instead in her business: a delicious scam wherein she cleans the empty apartments of the rich--and rents them out by day for a tidy profit. The crop of the title makes for a grand surprise ending, wherein the cleaning lady outwits her social betters to give her family, finally, a firm stake in the land. Her admiring daughter couldn't be prouder.

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