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The Furies

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The Furies is a book in which bitterness between mother and daughter is handed down from generation to generation like a family curse; a young writer’s tormented relationship with her mother ends in the mother’s suicide; the writer’s marriage falls apart soon after; she becomes obsessed with her lost mother and sinks into her own suicidal depression; and, after some intimation of recovery, she learns that she has terminal cancer. In other words, a grim story, but it’s much more than that. What makes this novel unusually compelling, harrowing, and moving is the certainty that it is not fiction. Janet Hobhouse, who had written three previous novels (most notably Dancing in the Dark), died of cancer at the age of 42 in 1991 after completing this book. What she left is a family memoir and thinly disguised autobiography that gradually, unsparingly darkens into a deathbed confession. Yet the tone isn’t rawly confessional. It earns the archaic, tragic connotations of its title through a masterful style — polished, delicate, pensive, searching.

”Each of us led our lives in terms of a good mother and bad, a face of fortune entirely female that began by smiling and grew carnivorous.” This is the theme that runs through the narrator’s vivid portraits of her female ancestors: squat, ugly, utterly unreliable Mirabel, her great-grandmother, who embodied the regal confidence of a prosperous German-Jewish family in turn-of-the-century New York; Emma, her stern, adventurous grandmother, who at 17 ran off with a sculptor who turned into a cranky Christian Scientist, forcing her to win the bohemian independence she sought all over again; and Bett, her mother, whose beauty, youthfulness, and nomadic existence in New York made the narrator (called Helen) feel more like a sister than like a daughter.

There are other telling portraits: childhood friends who make her conscious of her poverty and her mother’s oddity; her long-lost, morose English father, who sends her to an English school; Oxford lovers, including the brooding man she eventually marries; the famous American writer, who could easily be mistaken for Philip Roth, with whom she betrays her husband. But what takes possession of the book is a sense of implacable fate bound up with the increasingly bereft, helpless, pill-addicted mother. The hardly unspoken secret of this somber book is that it is about a daughter who can’t and won’t live without her mother. A