The chemistry between mothers and daughters can be loving, lethal, or some blend of both, as Oates and Berliner’s first-rate collection of 17 stories (14 published previously) amply illustrates. The contribution by Oates herself is among the most chilling: in “Death Mother,” a young woman in college has an unexpected, horrifying visit from her mother, whose madness has kept her institutionalized for years, but after showing her around campus and listening to her insults, the daughter refuses to leave the new life she’s made. Jane Shapiro, in “Mousetrap,” offers a more loving portrait of a mother, this one an aging, urbane lady of many facelifts who still knows how to wind her daughter up even while lying on the bathroom floor after a fall. But in Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” the essential truth that so many stories here reckon with attains a bell-like clarity: a mother, for all her familiarity and importance as keeper of her daughter’s history is ultimately and profoundly an enigma.
With contributors like Julia Alvarez, Ursula K. LeGuin, Gloria Naylor, Edna O’Brien, and others, the many facets of this truth are richly explored.