A M Homes is one of America's most private writers: so much so that until now she has rarely even revealed the name - Amy - that stands behind her invented initials. Her desire for privacy, this extraordinarily honest memoir suggests, stems from the mysteries of her background. On the day Homes was born in 1961, she was given up for adoption. She grew up aware that she had been adopted, but with no information about her birth parents. The subject was rarely mentioned; there was nothing to say.
But out of the blue, at the age of 31, when Homes was already a successful writer, her birth mother tracked her down. Suddenly, there was an awful lot to say. The identity of her "real" parents and her subsequent attempts to have a relationship with them are at the heart of this memoir. But it goes beyond this into a meditation on secrets, lies, history, identity and what it means to be part of a family.
Behind the narrative lies an analysis of memory and forgetfulness. The reaction of Homes's adoptive parents is fascinating: they knew tiny nuggets of information about her origins, but they had glossed over them or considered them irrelevant - never consciously, but simply because it did not seem important at the time.
Homes is shocked at the complicity of the adults around her in misremembering details about her adoption. It turns out that a neighbour had seen and spoken to her birth mother, Ellen. But when Homes quizzes her, she can barely remember anything. Homes's desperation to have some story to hold on to is heartwrenching. But there is nothing left in the neighbour's memory. Worse, Homes discovers that all this time both her parents have been living within a radius of a few miles: their paths could have easily crossed many times and probably did do.
Even Homes's adoptive mother had some idea of the circumstances: a young mother was giving up her daughter because she was having an affair with a married man who refused to leave his wife. As Homes gets to know her birth mother, Ellen - an eccentric, embittered character who, 30 years on, has never recovered from her lover's rejection - the family dynamic becomes horribly complicated. Especially as Ellen insists on her lawyer contacting Norman, Homes's father, a man she has not spoken to in decades and who wants nothing to do with either of them.
The story that emerges is a sad one. From the age of 15, Ellen worked in a department store owned by Norman, who initiated their affair. At 21, she became pregnant. Homes discovers that she has four half-siblings, one of them born within a month of her. Wife and mistress were pregnant at the same time - no wonder Norman had to choose.
Ellen is now in her 50s and overly, if understandably, eager to forge a relationship with her daughter before it is too late. Homes is more wary, especially when Ellen turns up unannounced at a book reading. Over the next ten years, Homes forms an uneasy relationship with her father, who promises more than he delivers and eventually disappears (only to threaten legal action when she first wrote about her experiences in the New Yorker).
Finally knowing the identity of her parents and the names of many of her relatives, Homes embarks on an obsessive, unfulfilling quest to track down her roots. She avoids any overt suggestion that "real family" are the people around you, but it is telling that The Mistress's Daughter is dedicated to her adoptive grandmother as well as to her three-year-old daughter - whose arrival inspired her to write this book.
This memoir is a gamble for Homes. We should be grateful for her honesty: the result is a fearless brand of writing that is utterly compelling.