CLOSE COMPANY: STORIES OF MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS edited by Christine Park, and Caroline Heaton,
New York: Ticknor & Fields, 298 pp., $18.95
WHILE a son's search for his father has long been a classic literary theme, daughters seldom have to search much for their mothers, probably because they usually seem to be so close at hand. But, as many of the stories in this collection demonstrate, the drama - and comedy - of the mother-daughter relationship often lies in a change of perspective that gives parent or child a new understanding of a tie long taken for granted.
In Michelene Wandor's ``Meet My Mother,'' a daughter accustomed to shocking her bourgeois, biscuit-baking mama is shocked herself when mother suddenly becomes as radical a feminist as her daughter. From Fay Zwicky comes a touching account of an Australian Jewish girl who saddens her mother by behaving spitefully to a German Jewish refugee lady.
And, from two well-known Canadian writers, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, there are two beautifully observed stories of daughters recognizing their mothers' strengths and limitations. In a deft twist, the dirt-poor farm woman of Alice Walker's ``Everyday Use'' stands up to her ultra-chic grown daughter, who now covets the humble objects of her despised childhood as valuable specimens of Afro-American folk art.
Other stories focus less on the mother-daughter bond than on women's roles in general. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ``The Unnatural Mother'' (originally published in 1916) depicts the horrified reaction of a small town to the heroic action of a woman who neglected her own child's safety to save all the town's children from an impending flood. The Norwegian writer Dikken Zwilgmeyer's ``An Everyday Story'' (1885) is a somber account of the pathetic, all-too-typical life and death of a very ordinary wife and mother. In ``Weekend,'' Fay Weldon makes a similar point, but in a brisk, witty style in sharp contrast to Zwilgmeyer's wistfulness.
Jane Gardam provides an upbeat, feminist rewrite of Hans Christian Andersen's ``The Little Mermaid'' in which the kid sister of the mermaid, who died for love, asks the prince to make some sacrifices for her this time. Some of the feminist writers can be satirical about feminism itself: Michelene Wandor, for one, and Jan Clausen, who gives us a tough little city girl turning the tables on her man-hating mother in ``Children's Liberation.''
There are stories of unresolved anger. ``Virgin Soil,'' first published in 1894, depicts a daughter's fury at a mother who kept her so ignorant about sex that she married a man she could not bear to touch. More subtly, Katherine Mansfield's ``The Young Girl'' invites us to dislike a petulant teen-ager, only to reveal a hidden history of maternal neglect.
There are stories of reconciliation and identification. Sylvia Plath's American girl learns what it takes to be an adult when her mother insists that she accompany her on a visit to a bereaved family. The wild, tomboyish Ghanaian girl in Ama Ata Aidoo's ``The Late Bud'' learns that she can win her mother's love after all.
Two of the most poignant stories reach through the ties of family to touch upon a wider realm of relationships. Reading her mother's diary, the daughter in Zhang Jie's ``Love Must Not Be Forgotten'' discovers a love that endured decades of separation, sorrow, and political persecution, and is strengthened thereby in her own conviction of the importance of marrying only for love. And in New York, a very different world from Jie's China, the narrator of Judith Chernaik's ``Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother'' bears the burden of her father's special pain in being defeated by a system whose verdict he never questions: ``I couldn't understand his detachment .... It was so obvious the highest price went to those who were aggressive, unscrupulous, and clever at reading the signs; it was so clear that nobody valued a man for being honorable or good.'' The daughter's silent outburst is a beautiful illustration of the personal roots of political affiliations.
Published in time for Mother's Day and prettily packaged in a slim, pastel volume containing more than might be guessed at first glance (25 stories), this anthology is no mere bouquet of sweetness and light, but a stimulating, richly diverse selection of stories that express a wide range of attitudes, emotions, insights, and ideas.