Katie Hafner could have whined her way through this book. In her new memoir, “Mother Daughter Me,” she meets past parental estrangement head on when her aging mother moves in with her and her teenage daughter Zoe. That’s in addition to the anguish already suffered eight years earlier when her husband Matt dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving her a sudden single mother. Yet Hafner’s tone is never pitying or sappy. Nor does it stray into clinical. A better word for it would be “journalistic,” but the warm journalism of a profile, rather than a detached third-person account. It’s worth noting that the book slides seamlessly between present and past tense, a tool not just for clarity, but almost as a grammatical way of coping.
Hafner writes like she must elucidate the audience to a singular life, one filled with her mother’s loving German sometimes-boyfriend and father’s austere British wife, a sister who becomes a mother to Katie and then a pariah to the whole family. She does it with detail and even-handedness, writing of her mother’s alcoholism, “I believed then, as I do now, that my mother had no intention of being the agent of sorrow and hurt, that she was doing the best that she could, that she wanted to take care of her girls but got tripped up.” Another place this equanimity serves her well is when she discusses Zoe, who one moment is buying flowers for grandma and the next locking her in a bathroom during an underage drinking party. The only pitting of characters against each other is done by the characters themselves, not Hafner.
While there is armchair and actual psychology—the family goes to see a therapist—it’s welcomed and not overwhelming. “Mother Daughter Me” is not memoir as confessional, a la Mary Karr, or shock and horror, a la Augusten Burroughs. There are elements of both in the tale, but all the reader hears is a measured voice, the voice of a friend catching up on a complicated life. Humor is not this book’s saving grace, nor is it the most relatable piece of family memoir out there. There’s a little too much complicated specificity and too many bases—alcoholism, neglect, stepfamily, losing a partner, grief—to have “Mother Daughter Me” work in the same way that Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” works. That’s certainly not Hafner’s fault, and alternatively its broad range of issues could be a comfort to a broader swath of readers and intrigue the casual one. But what will really help any reader take heart is the balance; “Mother Daughter Me” might very well go on to be a classic of the genre just because of its steadiness. That Hafner was able to overcome emotional, often tragic, circumstances to at all succeed at professional and personal life is a marvel, and she proves it further with a book that, in its quiet way, shows just how she did it. (Liz Baudler)
“Mother Daughter Me”
By Katie Hafner
Random House, 288 pages, $26