The Last Time I Saw Mother

The Last Time I Saw Mother

4.5 4
by Arlene J. Chai

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"My mother never writes. So when the mail arrived that day, I was not expecting to find a letter from her. There was no warning."

Between generations of women, there are always secrets--relationships kept hidden, past events obscured, true feelings not spoken. But sometimes the truth is so primal it must be told. Now, with haunting lyricism and emotional


"My mother never writes. So when the mail arrived that day, I was not expecting to find a letter from her. There was no warning."

Between generations of women, there are always secrets--relationships kept hidden, past events obscured, true feelings not spoken. But sometimes the truth is so primal it must be told. Now, with haunting lyricism and emotional clarity, Arlene Chai has written an exquisite novel about a family of women who break their silence. At the center of The Last Time I Saw Mother is the singular story of a woman who suddenly learns she is not who she thinks she is.

Caridad is a wife and mother, a native of the Philippines living in Sydney, Australia. Out of the blue Caridad's mother summons her home. Although she is not ill, Thelma needs to talk to her daughter -- to  reveal a secret that has been weighing heavily on her for years.

It is a tale that Caridad in no way suspects. She stopped asking questions about the past long ago; her mother's constant reluctance to answer finally subdued her curiosity. Now, it is through the words of Thelma, her aunt Emma, and her cousin Ligaya, that Caridad will learn the startling truth and attempt to recapture what has been lost to her. Arlene Chai tells their versions of the story in their own voices, each one distinct, moving, and magical. As each woman tells her part of their family's hidden history, Caridad hears at last the unspoken stories--the joys and sorrows that her parents kept to themselves, and the never forgotten tragedy of the war years, when Japan's brutal occupation and civilian deprivations helped destroy a country and its history.

The Last Time I Saw Mother is about mothers and daughters. It is about a cultural identity born of Spanish, Chinese, and Filipino influence. And it is about the healing power of truth. Arlene Chai is one of the most stunning new novelists in years. She takes us to a place we have never been before.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The central story in this interesting but uneven debut novel by Filipina author Chai concerns a woman who discovers the truth about her parentage. Caridad, a Filipino woman living in Sydney, Australia, with her teenage daughter, discovers on a trip home to Manila that her elderly mother, Thelma, is actually her auntand that her vivacious aunt Emma is her mother. Using multiple, shifting first-person perspectives, these three women, as well as Caridad's beautiful, bitter cousin, Ligaya, relate the long story of why this secret adoption took place. The voices of the four women are virtually identical, however, and sometimes lapse into clichd musings about life and love. More compelling is the seamlessly interwoven background Chai provides: 50 years of history in the Philippinesfrom the WWII Japanese invasion and its vividly recounted brutalities through the battle for liberation (in which systematic American bombing caused more damage than three years of Japanese occupation) to the Marcoses' 20-year rule and the subsequent People's Power revolution. Fascinating side lights illuminate the subtleties of race relations among native Filipinos and the other ethnic strands in the island's social fabric: "the Spaniards they feared and envied; the Chinese they hated and envied.'' Chai's prose is devoid of stylistic flourish and the narrative is often repetitious and digressive. When she tells of life in the evacuation camps or in war-decimated Manila, however, the descriptions are sensual and palpably detailed. Thus the truth about Caridad's past pales against Chai's evocation of her country's travails. $250,000 ad/promo; Literary Guild alternate. (July)
Library Journal
Caridad, a Filipino woman with an 18-year-old daughter, is called home from Australia to Manila by her aging mother and told that she was adopted as an infant. She learns that her real mother is her aunt Emma and that her cousins are really her sisters. Long-buried memories of early confusion resurface as Caridad's relatives help piece together the puzzle of her past. This absorbing first novel relates the lives of four women in one Filipino family against a tumultuous historical backdrop ranging from World War II through the fall of the Marcos regime. For the American reader, it offers informative glimpses into the extent and mixed effects of the U.S. involvement in the Philippines. Highly recommended for all fiction collections.Sheila M. Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C.
Molly McQuade
"Pain has its uses." In her first novel, Chai allows this idea to wind a tricky course through the ranks of a Filipino clan trying to survive this century's wars, political upheavals, and other disenchantments. Presented as a series of monologues delivered by several family members, the story is most persuasive when the complex plot and various characters ease up and yield to the clarifying urge of feeling. Then the reader momentarily forgets who the people are in their intricate relations and can best appreciate Chai's transparently straightforward prose as an archipelago of emotional forces. Basically the tale of an adopted daughter's reconciliation with her mothers, the novel harbors long-held secrets and releases truths. Why was Caridad, the daughter, given away to a relative? Finally learning that she was, how can she become herself all over again? Some of Chai's assembled voices are more compelling than others, and the book includes its share of historical banalities (even a cliched reappearance of Imelda Marcos' 3,000 pairs of shoes). But the reality of the pain pursued is unavoidably affecting.
Kirkus Reviews
Mother-daughter relationships with add-ons as debut novelist Chai expands to varying effect this trendy genre by including lessons on recent Philippine history.

Like her 30ish protagonist Caridad, Chai (who was born in Manila) has Chinese parents and a cultural heritage that is as much Chinese as Spanish and Filipino—a heritage that makes for a pleasingly textured novel, though at times the insertion of local color seems forced. Now living in Australia with her daughter, and temporarily estranged from husband Jaime, Caridad is summoned home to Manila by a letter from her mother. Once there, she is drawn back into the lives and secrets of Thelma, her mother; her aunt Emma; and Ligaya, her oldest cousin. With a certain amount of foreshadowing and numerous richly detailed detours into local history, including an account of the Japanese Occupation, Caridad learns the truth about her parentage. Thelma recalls her marriage to Raoul, the only son of an affluent Chinese family who expected her to live with them and bear many sons; the infant Raoul brought home with tragic consequences; the changes in their marriage; and the decision she made and never regretted in the first year after the war. Emma, meanwhile, recalls her happy marriage to Alfonso; the birth of their many children; the privations and horror of the Japanese Occupation; and the early death of Alfonso, a loss that had many repercussions. Ligaya adds her own personal memories, as well as her reasons for not marrying for love; and Caridad, as she travels back and forth among the women, finally understands her past and herself. Realizing "that I had so much. . . . I had been given so much," she goes back to try reconciliation with Jaime.

A thin, less-than-riveting plot enhanced by graceful prose and a generously—at times too generously—evoked sense of place and period: a flawed but promising first outing.

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Random House Publishing Group
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What People are saying about this

Amy Tan
A remarkable first novel filled with family secrets and the intersection of personal and world histories, pulled through four mesmerizing voices.

Meet the Author

Arlene J. Chai was born and educated in Manila. In 1982, she migrated to Sydney with her parents and sisters and now lives in Northern Beaches. After more years as an advertising copywriter than she cares to mention, she had a year off during which she wrote The Last Time I Saw Mother. She is at work on a second novel.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Last Time I Saw Mother 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I cant believe they're adding this to the new curriculum! Lucky kids
Guest More than 1 year ago
Arlene Chai's first venture is well-written and expounds on the interplay of various cultures on the Filipino people. Our strong Spanish and Chinese influences and conflicting values are captured profoundly yet it is still a joy to read. Family relationships esp. among women is also depicted with keen perspective.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Arlene Chai's is an excellect read for people who are interested in people and relationships. In the book the focus is on Filipino women: as wife, daughter, aunt, niece, mother, sister,grandma, granddaughter, in-law, friend. The relationships are given extra texture thru the interplay of Chinese, Filipino, Spanish, and Australian cultures, and the influence of American and Japanese occupations. Unique insights into Philippine society are likewise provided, including the period under Marcos's martial law. This is a book the value of which can only increase over time inasmuch as it has neatly captured various nuances of the Filipino character and of Philippine life for the enjoyment and insights of future generations.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great read about life in the philippines (Manila in particular) during and since WWII. This book also gives great insight into a Filipino mother-daughter relationship.