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Iris Surrey is a secret.
An only child, Iris lives with her mother in a rambling house in a small midwestern town. Her mother is everything: provider, confidante, friend. But at seventeen, Iris begins to question their nearly symbiotic relationship—and the noticeable lack of others in their sheltered world. Where is Iris’s father? Where are her grandparents? What is her mother keeping from her? When she stumbles upon ...
Iris Surrey is a secret.
An only child, Iris lives with her mother in a rambling house in a small midwestern town. Her mother is everything: provider, confidante, friend. But at seventeen, Iris begins to question their nearly symbiotic relationship—and the noticeable lack of others in their sheltered world. Where is Iris’s father? Where are her grandparents? What is her mother keeping from her? When she stumbles upon the explosive truth, Iris begins a monumental journey of self-discovery—one that will throw everything she has ever known into turmoil.
I had no doubt I was, of course. Which perhaps proves the point. You are what you think you are, aren’t you? Especially in the most essential matters, who on earth is to judge the nature of your nature, of your character, of your innermost self, except you, the subject, yourself? And yet. And yet.
Indeed, I felt I had an almost ordinary childhood. Blessedly ordinary, it might have been, given that I was growing up at a time when ordinariness was becoming the most exceptional condition, achieved only by the unusually lucky, or the unusually sane few.
Does that mean she was unusually sane, my mother? The possibility is unpalatable, but entirely plausible. She certainly gave the impression of being perfectly normal—and, after all, how do we judge others except through impressions, through appearances, largely or minutely observed? Even if we don’t judge ourselves in such ways at all. But then my mother had an exceptional talent for simulation.
We lived in a small college town not far from Chicago, in a rambling wooden house with two porches, a leafy yard and pleasant, eclectic clutter inside, spanning in styles from Victoriana to virtual trompe l’oeil. From the outside it was the kind of place you hardly see in the movies anymore, on the grounds that it’s unrealistic. Which I suppose it is. Midwestern towns like the one we lived in have been on their way to extinction for a long time now.
Still, my mother wasn’t exactly a provincial pastoralist. She had lived in New York before I was born, but after ten years of working hard and riding high she became sick and tired of its aggressions, false sophistication and greed. She found the ever muggier, pollution-spewed summers wearying. She’d been a highly paid investment consultant, but by the time she left Manhattan she was more than ready to give it all up. At least, that is how she told it to me, much later, when I was old enough to understand such things. As long as she was striving and testing herself, she thrived on the no-holds-barred competitiveness of New York’s financial world, on its adrenalin-driven energies and high stakes. But once she reached a certain point on the career ladder—it was not the glass ceiling, she had broken through that—her work went utterly flat on her. The meaning had gone out of it as if by evil magic, turning to dross and dust. That’s what she said, I remember. She needed something else—a new purpose, a more primal, deeper connection to life. And my mother wasn’t someone who was easily prevented from getting what she wanted. Or at least from going after it. Like so many of her generation, she was willful and proud of being so. She thought the world belonged to her and that she could only improve it. She had the right ideas, the right values and the right strategies. It followed that she should have what she wanted.
She had me. I became her new project, her great enterprise. She came to the Midwest, she told me, partly because she thought it would be a good place for a child to grow up. There were still the elements here, there was still nature. She thought that was terribly important, no matter how uncomfortable or excessive the elements got sometimes, what with the deadly cold and the deadly hot temperatures, which drove people into subterranean corridors and into their own, carefully controlled environments. She’d been involved in some kind of political movement in her twenties, to do with saving the earth and going back to nature, and she spoke about it with a nostalgia and a vehemence which baffled me. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so passionate about politics. But anyway, in moving to the Midwest, she was among other things following her principles.
And so our little town became her refuge, our hideaway. Not that she stopped working altogether. She was very good at what she did and once in a while her former clients still sought her expensive advice. I knew when this was happening, even when I was little, because my mother would suddenly become distracted and absorbed by something other than me, pulling interminable sheets of paper out of the printer, and studying insectlike columns of figures even as they emerged from its aperture and fell into the tray. Then she’d sit down at the computer and type out a response to what she’d read without pause or hesitation. There was always a small hurt on such occasions at being ignored by her for a few minutes; but there was also fascination in watching her, for even as a small child I was impressed by the assurance of her gestures, the glint of concentrated thought in her eye.
But such derailments of attention were rare. Mostly she devoted herself to me. In New York she had hustled in an antheap of collective activity, the press of a thousand bodies. I was to be an individual, a creative work. Paradoxically. Ironically. Anyway, we kept very much to ourselves when I was little. Aside from the minimal social contacts required by a small town—a hello to the recharge-station attendant, a what-do-you-recommend to the visual entertainment vendor—we hardly talked to anyone for days. It was easy to be a hermit in a Midwestern college town and I don’t think I really knew another child until I was five or so. Later she started going to occasional parties, not to bring attention to herself, but to deflect it. Occasionally, I was allowed to visit other children, or play with them in the park; but for some reason none of my fledgling friendships lasted more than a few weeks. Something would always happen and I would be told not to play with Lucy or Ronnie anymore. Sometimes I felt a pang of disappointment, but it soon went away. My mother was sufficient for me; when I was with her I felt no other needs.
Neither did she, apparently. I was a late child, by her generation’s standards. She had waited until her forties to have me because she had wanted some unencumbered adulthood. As always, she got what she wanted. She seemed to have had a halcyon youth—at least in her recounting of things. College, success, boyfriends, working on the cutting edge of the global economy. When she was in her mid-thirties she met my father. Or so she told me when I asked what happened to my daddy. But she wouldn’t tell me much else. She said such things happen all the time, you meet someone and then they disappear. Especially daddies. She promised to tell me more when I grew up, when I was ready. I think I felt dissatisfied by this even when I was a child, but I nodded my head and didn’t inquire further. Anyway, there was plenty of evidence that she was right. So many other kids I knew had no daddies, or had daddies who were not real daddies, although the children tried to treat them as if they were, and to believe they were as good as the real ones would ever have been. Good-enough daddies. Almost real daddies. The nuclear family—the nuke—was dead as the dodo by the time I came along. It had exploded, or imploded, or done both at the same time. I had seen films about mom-dad-kids kinds of units on some of the classic two-dimensional videos, and I knew that such families were either hilariously happy in their togetherness, or lived in sheer torment and hell. I also knew one or two children whose biological parents were actually married, but it’s not as if anyone expected this condition to be permanent. So I didn’t think there was anything abnormal about the absence of a daddy. Once, when somebody’s real uncle or unreal daddy lifted me up and put me on his shoulders, I felt a shadowy longing. So this was what male shoulders were like, straight and steady, this was the feel of masculine energy. Daddy energy . . . But mostly, I didn’t think about my father, didn’t speculate or fantasize. Mostly, the daddy-space was a blank. My mother was enough for me; she supplied all my needs. She focused on me and coddled me and loved me half to death.
“Do you realize how significant that phrase is?” my Adviser has asked me.
Oh yes. I do.
But when I was little, I only knew that she was my mummy, mine, for me. She was quickness, animation, a flash of a beautiful smile, neat deft movements as she combed my hair, or flicked through the pages of some financial report. She was the source of play and pleasure and every gratification. She gave me just about everything I wanted and probably much more than I needed. I had robodolls, cuddly and talkative, of all races and colors, all the virtual videos I could watch and ingenious mind-advancing games in every material and medium. Perhaps too many. My mother thought she had obligations to my mental potential, and she had no doubt as to what that potential might be.
But Mummy was also an enfolding, warm, comfy place I could run to whenever I inflicted some small injury on myself, or felt in the slightest sad or upset. Then she would lift me up and fold me to her till the heat and softness of her body enveloped me and absorbed whatever small unhappiness was inside me into herself, until I felt dozy and fluid, like those amoebae under a microscope that maintain their amorphous shape for a moment and then merge with the organic surround. Or else she would gaze at me intently to see what was the matter, her eyes widening and then narrowing to a pinpoint as they traveled into me and then funneled me up, into her- self. I looked very much like her, even as a child. I was blonde and blue-eyed, with the same broadly spaced eyebrows and high slant of chin; and I felt, as I raised my face to hers, that I was looking at the very image of beauty, but also at an enlarging looking-glass, into which I entered through her eyes and in which I dissolved, becoming indistinguishable from her, becoming her. My unformed, liquid sounds blended with her responding voice, which cooed and put into words everything I couldn’t say. Then I had a languid sense of fullness, of safety. This was love, sweet love. There were times, it is true, when her gaze probed too intently, as if I held some secret she was trying to unriddle, as if I were the mirror which could tell her things. Then her gaze lengthened even more and became abstracted, as if I were inanimate, or a precious object she needed to study. When that happened, I’d turn my head away or try to wriggle out of her arms. Then she’d raise my chin with her finger and say, “Look at me . . . look at me,” and I’d face her directly as if under a spell, and reenter her eyes, and we’d be together again.
Posted January 21, 2010
Eva Hoffman writes like an angel--that she has proven several times over, in her five non-fiction books. But now she steps into fiction as if into a garment that was meant to fit. Her characters are rich and alive, her descriptions are crystal-clear and the plot is absolutely page-turning and haunting. I'm not sure how much secret of "The Secret" I can give away, but rather than spoiling things I'll just say it touches on genetics and science, on the future, and family, on mother/child bonds and the nature of identity. A beautifully conceived and beautifully written book. --Liz RosenbergWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 29, 2009
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Posted July 22, 2009
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