The Mistress's Daughter

The Mistress's Daughter

by A. M. Homes


$15.76 $17.00 Save 7% Current price is $15.76, Original price is $17. You Save 7%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Tuesday, October 23  Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.
    Same Day shipping in Manhattan. 
    See Details


The Mistress's Daughter by A. M. Homes

The "fierce and eloquent" (New York Times) memoir by the award-winning author of May We Be Forgiven and This Book Will Save Your Life

The acclaimed writer A. M. Homes was given up for adoption before she was born. Her biological mother was a twenty-two-year-old single woman who was having an affair with a much older married man with a family of his own. The Mistress's Daughter is the ruthlessly honest account of what happened when, thirty years later, her birth parents came looking for her. Homes relates how they initially made contact and what happened afterwards, and digs through the family history of both sets of her parents in a twenty-first-century electronic search for self. Daring, heartbreaking, and startlingly funny, Homes's memoir is a brave and profoundly moving consideration of identity and family.

"A compelling, devastating, and furiously good book written with an honesty few of us would risk." —Zadie Smith 

"I fell in love with it from the first page and read compulsively to the end." —Amy Tan

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143113317
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/25/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 506,515
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

A.M. Homes was born in Washington D.C. graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Iowa, lives in New York City and teaches at Princeton University. Her work appears in ArtForum, Granta, The Guardian, McSweeney’s, Modern Painters, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Electric Literature, Playboy, and Zoetrope. She works in television, most recently as as Co-Executive Producer of Falling Water and Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. She is the  recipient of awards including the Guggenheim, NEA, and NYFA fellowships. Her most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013, and has been optioned for film by Unanimous Entertainment.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

December 18, 1961

Place of Birth:

Washington, D.C.


B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1985; M.F.A., University of Iowa Writers¿ Workshop

Table of Contents

Book 1
The Mistress's Daughter     3
Book 2
Unpacking My Mother     109
The Electronic Anthropologist     143
My Father's Ass     183
Like an Episode of L.A. Law     203
My Grandmother's Table     223
Acknowledgments     239

What People are Saying About This

Mary Gaitskill

The Mistress's Daughter is an emotional experience - outraging, profoundly saddening, moving, and ultimately triumphant.

From the Publisher

"A compelling, devastating, and furiously good book written with an honesty few of us would risk."
-Zadie Smith

"Fierce and eloquent."
-The New York Times Book Review

"As startling and riveting as her fiction . . . a lacerating memoir in which the formerly powerless child triumphs with the help of a mighty pen."
-San Francisco Chronicle

"Rich in humanity and humor . . . Homes combines an unfussy candor with a deliciously droll, quirky wit. . . . Her energy and urgency become infectious."
-USA Today

"I fell in love with it from the first page and read compulsively to the end."
-Amy Tan

"As a memoirist, A. M. Homes takes a characteristically fierce and fearless approach. And she has a whopper of a personal story to tell."
-Chicago Tribune

Jamie Lee Curtis

Veracious words on the complexity and ambiguity of the fractured life of an adopted child. Celebratory and shattering, it will leave you asking yourself, adopted or not, who AM I?

Sean Wilsey

Both a heartbreak and a thrill to read, The Mistress's Daughter is a radiantly smart memoir of pain and self discovery, outlined in savage, very strange detail. A.M. Homes is a writer of extraordinary depth and courage and grace. Her story will knock you down and pick you back up again.

Amy Tan

The Mistress's Daughter has the beguiling pull of mystery, memory, and surprise. I fell in love with it from the first page and read compulsively to the end. It lays bare those questions about our essential selves: How did we become who we are? What elements of inheritance, neglect, accident, and choice gave us our confused identity, our quirky personality, our urges to be wholly loved? As A.M. Homes shows, there are no definitive answers, but in our search for them, we find more important truths.

Zadie Smith

A compelling, devastating, and furiously good book written with an honesty few of us would risk.

Reading Group Guide

In her critically acclaimed novels and short stories, A.M. Homes has proved herself as one of this generation’s most fearless authors. Now, in her latest work, The Mistress’s Daughter, Homes moves from fiction to fact, shifting the focus to her own life and the families—biological and adoptive—who have shaped it. Applying the withering honesty and wicked wit for which she is known and celebrated, Homes tackles issues of identity and personal history from a fresh perspective, using her two sets of parents to illustrate the age-old debate of nature versus nurture.

A.M. Homes was put up for adoption before she was born. Thirty years later, she was contacted by her birth mother, and Homes’s childhood fantasies about who that woman might be were revived—only to be dashed by meeting her in person. Rather than the beautiful, capable goddess Homes had dreamed of, her mother proves to be a complicated, unsettling woman who demands too much, too soon; who fails to respect Homes’s personal boundaries; and who requires mothering rather than providing it. Homes’s biological father, meanwhile, treats his relationship with his daughter much like the illicit affair that created her, promising much but delivering little. Homes alternately pulls toward and away from her newfound parents, wanting something from this “new” family yet unsure exactly what and uncertain as to how it would fit with the family she calls her own. In this way, the author explores the confounding nature of heredity—as much as she feels alienated from her birth parents, she in equal measure recognizes herself in their tics, mannerisms, and physical characteristics. Ultimately, Homes moves beyond both her biological and adoptive parents, widening her net of family by looking back into her genealogical history and looking to the future in the form of her baby daughter. It is in this extended family picture that she finally finds her peace.

Central to The Mistress’s Daughter are themes of personal character, love, and forgiveness that extend beyond the events of adoption. Homes’s achievement is that she has taken her unique experience and made it universal. While fans of her fiction may be especially interested in catching a glimpse of the inner workings of the author’s psyche, those readers who are new to Homes’s work will be impressed by her bravery, her sharp humor, and her elegant prose. Her exploration of the point at which identity and ancestry both meet and diverge will ring true with anyone who has felt a disconnect between themselves and their family—which, plainly put, includes all of us.


A.M. Homes is the author of the novels, This Book Will Save Your Life, Music For Torching, The End of Alice,In a Country of Mothers, and Jack, as well as the short-story collections, Things You Should Know and The Safety of Objects, the travel memoir, Los Angeles: People, Places and The Castle on the Hill, and the artist's book Appendix A:

In April of 2007 Viking will publish her long awaited memoir, The Mistress's Daughter, the story of the author being "found" by her biological family, and a literary exploration and investigation of identity, adoption and genealogical ties that bind.

Her work has been translated into eighteen languages and appears frequently in Art Forum, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney's,The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Zoetrope. She is a Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair, Bomb and Blind Spot.

She has been the recipient of numerous awards including Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, NYFA, and The Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, along with the Benjamin Franklin Award, and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.

In addition she has been active on the Boards of Directors of Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center In Provincetown, The Writers Room, and PEN-where she chairs both the membership committee and the Writers Fund. Additionally she serves on the Presidents Council for Poets and Writers.

A.M. Homes was a writer/producer of the hit television show The L Word in 2004-2005 and wrote the adaptation of her first novel JACK, for Showtime. The film aired in 2004 and won an Emmy Award for Stockard Channing. Director Rose Troche's film adaptation of The Safety of Objects was released in 2003, and Troche is currently developing In A Country of Mothers as well. Music For Torching is in development with director Steven Shainberg with a script by Buck Henry, and This Book Will Save Your Life is in Development with Stone Village Pictures.

Born in Washington D.C., she now lives in New York City.


Q. To you, what are the most important and universal aspects of the story you are telling in this book? What do you want people to take away from it?

A. This is a book that explores coming to know one’s self. It’s about the very odd sensation of finding out that I was not who I thought I was, and yet didn’t know who I was. It wasn’t until my biological parents found me that I realized how much identity is really about narrative, the stories we are told about our family history. In The Mistress’s Daughter I explore the power of family narratives and go further, looking into how one does family research in the twenty-first century. The question “Who am I?” is not unique to the adoptee; it’s something we all wrestle with. My hope is that readers take from this book a deeper awareness of the adoption experience and that the story will prompt people to think about their own family narratives and their own identity.

Q.You are best known for writing fiction that takes risks—exploring the psychological worlds of your characters from the inside out; how was writing a memoir different from writing fiction?

A. The memoir was much more difficult. My greatest pleasure as a writer comes from inhabiting people whose experience is different from my own. In fiction one can travel the imagination, exploring the unknown, but in memoir, one essentially picks at a wound, again and again, revisiting the most painful complex moments of your life. Autobiography is limited where fiction is limitless and that’s why I love it. With this book I spent months, years really, trying to find language for what was the most ethereal and biological—almost chemical—emotional experience of my life to date, an experience that on many levels defies language. The degree of difficulty was very high . . . it was brutal, unbearable at times, which is why it took so long.

Q. So why do it?

A. That’s a good question. Part of it was the challenge of giving voice to something so difficult to describe. As the events were unfolding it all seemed so horrifying that I was sure I would never forget them, sure that everything would remain perfectly etched in my memory—that every phone message and the sound of my biological mother’s voice would echo in my head forever. I also felt the need to portray the peculiarity of it all—to be able to show it to others, and ask, “What do you think—does this seem odd?” The return of my biological family was traumatic—paralyzing—and I just wanted to capture the events without processing or analysis, to deliver the story back to myself, as though by writing it down, it would begin to make sense.

Q. Did writing this bring closure or a sense of relief?

A. Not really. I don’t think there is such a thing as closure on this kind of subject matter—it’s ongoing. I’m still adopted, there are still enormous things I don’t know about my own history. Writing this book was not cathartic—it was intense, it took more than ten years as I struggled to figure out who I was in relation to where I had come from. That said, am I different or changed now that it is done? Yes. No doubt there are subtle ways in which I feel stronger. Having survived the psychic annihilation of being willfully unknown by my biological family, the good news is I no longer question my right to be alive—I have earned a place here on earth.

When I started writing this book my motivation was to create a document for myself but at some point I started thinking about others who might also be fighting to feel like they have a right to be alive. My hope is that the book would have meaning for others. As much as I feel more exposed than I would with a novel, there is a kind of honesty to it—an inescapable clarity that just is. This is who I am; this is my life—forty-five years of sadness, joy, achievement, and failure. It is really a book about a life lived and how we learn to accommodate our selves and our families.

Q.In the section of the memoir called “My Father’s Ass,” in which you write about going for a DNA blood test with your biological father, you see him at the lab walking away from you and you recognize his ass as your own. Is there an unavoidable legacy, a biological inheritance that one can’t escape?

A. Before I was “found” I had a rich fantasy life about who my parents were—there was enormous freedom in not knowing my background, a wonderful innocence. I could be anyone. As far as I was concerned, my parents were Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. It made perfect sense—and still does—when one thinks about who one is informed by. Sontag and Kerouac were my chosen legacy. When I met my biological parents, I saw fragments of myself in them and was terrified. I wondered if I would keel over and die at a very young age as some of them did, or have a mid-life crisis that would ruin all that I’d built for myself, as both biological parents did independent of each other. Would I be “crazy” like my mother and so on. For the first time, I could feel the thumb print of DNA on my body. Having never known anyone related to me, I had to be told by others that I looked like my biological parents. Having never seen myself before, I didn’t know what I looked like. No doubt there is biology that one can’t escape, but at the same time, one can also hope to develop and improve upon that biological root.

Q. All of your work deals with identity in some form or another—characters struggling to reconcile the dissonance between their public and private lives. And this book too is not just about adoption but about universal questions: Who am I, where did I come from, how do I describe myself? Can you talk a bit about your identity and how it’s changed over time?

A. My identity—that’s a good one. Woody Allen’s film Zelig, about the “human chameleon,” had enormous resonance for me—that feeling of almost unconsciously shifting to accommodate is something I relate to. I grew up with enormous unknowns—questions but no answers. On the positive side, the flux or fluidity of my identity has been helpful to me as a writer—allowing me to crawl inside the experience of others. People always ask how I’m able to write from a male point of view and for me it’s entirely natural to be someone other than myself. The two areas where I have a more fixed identity are as a writer and, more recently, as a mother, and even those have their moments of identity crisis. When I was pregnant, Philip Roth came up to me at the National Book Awards, looked at my giant belly and said, “What did you go and do that for?” As though by becoming a mother, I’d given up my spot as a writer and/or by becoming a mother, I’d gone from being this mysterious ambisexual writer into being a girl. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a good thing. But if I was being honest, I would say that in many ways I am like a shape-shifter, reflecting what is already out there and yet I’m sure I must have an identity of my own. Let me keep looking, maybe I can find it around here somewhere.

Q. One of the most fascinating chapters of this book is “The Electronic Anthropologist” and your experience doing twenty-first-century genealogical research. Can you talk a bit about that?

A. I felt as though I’d stumbled down a wonderful rabbit hole—also known as the World Wide Web. I was able, through looking at such things as census documents and ship manifests, to locate an amazing amount of information from people all over the world. Even five years ago that would have been impossible to do. What was so invigorating about this chapter was that, despite the hard time my immediate biological relatives gave me, this research allowed me to reclaim my enthusiasm about my own history. I was able to connect not just to my biological parents but to hundreds who had come before me, and within that there was power, drama, and narrative—thousands of stories to be told. My imagination began to expand and that allowed me to take back the experience as my own, having been paralyzed by the early part of the story. And I loved dipping into history—looking at dozens and dozens of birth certificates and death certificates and trying to sort out the “right” people—the ones who were actually related to me—from the wrong ones. Sometimes the wrong ones were just as, if not more, interesting to find out about.

Q. There are a lot of well-known adopted people—from Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s to Apple Computer’s Steven Jobs to other writers such as Edward Albee and Jeanette Winterson. Can you talk about how being adopted may have influenced your work

A. Well, first off, if you’re going to have a club of famous adopted people you better do a bit more research, you’re leaving off the serial killer category: Son of Sam, Joel Rifkin, and so on. There are whole Web sites about adopted killers. But seriously I do think being adopted changes a person; it causes a dislocation, a kind of fracture that disrupts things.

In his books on becoming a writer John Gardner spoke about how all good writers have a chip on their shoulder or something they have to get over. I’m not sure it’s a chip on my shoulder, having grown up feeling on the outside. I sure worked hard to be known, to deliver myself to a larger world in some way. No doubt my sense of being an “outsider,” more an observer than a participant, has informed my writing. I don’t think there’s a particular “adopted” point of view, but clearly my experience of feeling removed gives me a way of looking at the world that is perhaps different from others and a perspective from which to write. Also I tend to notice things that others don’t—emotional details. The combination of my constitution and my experience taught me very early on to clue into the emotional states of others.

Q. If your biological parents hadn’t come looking for you, would you have looked for them? Are you sorry they found you?

A. No. I would not have looked for them. Someone once gave me a phone number for a woman who, for a fee, could reportedly find anyone in twenty-four hours. I carried that number with me for a long time and then curiously decided I wouldn’t call. And of course, it was just a few months later that my biological mother “found” me—which is somewhat unusual. It always seemed ironic—that only after I chose not to search did the information come to me. Am I sorry that they found me? As I say at the end of the book, “Did I choose to be found? No. Do I regret it? No. I couldn’t not know.”


  • As part of the process of discovering herself, Homes pursues genealogical research, uncovering her family tree and even having her DNA mapped. To what degree have you ever been interested in discovering your family history? Why does ancestry matter to us?
  • What do you believe is the source of identity—nature or nurture? Use your own experiences growing up to make your argument
  • Adoption is a popular topic in the news and a current celebrity trend. What are your views? Would you consider adopting a child?
  • What was your reaction to Homes’s birth mother? Her father? Her adoptive parents? Where did your sympathies lie in reading the book?
  • Do you think Homes would have been better off not knowing her birth parents? Explain your answer.
  • How do you define “family”? How did you develop that definition?
  • Had you read any other memoirs before this? If so, which ones and what did you enjoy about them? If not, how did the experience of reading a memoir differ from reading a novel?
  • If you could ask Homes one question, what would it be?
  • People write memoirs for a number of personal reasons but the books usually center on one theme or event. If you were to write a memoir, which theme or event would you focus on? What title would you give your book?
  • Customer Reviews

    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

    See All Customer Reviews

    Mistress's Daughter 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
    MisTom3 More than 1 year ago
    I am adopted & have always known it. I met my biological mothers side of the family about 5 years ago. I have yet to meet his side. Many of the thoughts she expressed in this book I have had myself. I was disappointed in her use of the terms "mom" & "dad". Just because they procreated doesn't mean they are your parents. Your parents are the people who raised you. Perhaps there were problems with her parents that she didn't touch on. I just thought that part a little off putting. All in all a very well written book though.
    Slow-Reader More than 1 year ago
    The book was good in the beginning and makes you wonder what is going to happen, but then it gets into ancestry research and gets really boring. The ending is is unresovled, and just leaves you where.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I'm an adoptee, too. I couldn't help but think when I read this book how angry this author was. I actually felt taken aback when I encountered the anger in her writing. I felt very sorry for her, but she did treat her birthparents very badly. Not that they were the most upstanding and honest of people, though. Her birthmother could have had an abortion, but she chose not to. I am grateful every day that my birthmother chose to put me up for adoption.
    OhioReader More than 1 year ago
    While the story is a touching one with sensitive issues there wasn't any real climax to the story. While I suppose this is good it lends itself to ho-hum reading enjoyment.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I disliked this book very much because of the author's behavior toward her biological mother who wanted to have a relationship with her. The mother did what she thought was best for the child by giving her up for adoption and yet she was rejected by an ungrateful daughter. I found the pain she caused her mother totally unacceptable.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Holmes has written a book that is fraught with anger and revenge. Image the expectant mother considering her choices and wants to offer her baby for adoption only to fear the consequences outlined in 'Mistress' Daughter'. Ms Holmes reveals how she stalked her biological father and dismissed and rejected her dying mother. Imagine again the prospective adoptive parents seeing their future adopted child cast aside the upper-middle class priveledged life her new family offered filled with the best of Ivy-League education and real advantages. Ms Holmes is consumed by the need for someone to pay for her unhappiness 'from what you keep asking'. She wants no part of the penniless dying mother but goes directly for the 'pay dirt' she invisions from her biological wealthy father. She 'won't be ignored' a la 'Fatal Attraction' and seems surprised that her newly found family rejects her seige mentality. This book is another me-generation anthemn that uses any fear or hurt, real or imaged as the basis for 'setting the record straight' whatever the consequences. Speaking of straight Ms Holmes gets that wrong too. She delights in word games about her sexuality. She plays with the subject as if she enjoys confusing the readers and the public. I look forward to the book to be written some years from now by her daughter holding Ms Holmes accountable for every uncertainty and failed expectation.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    LynninSanDiego More than 1 year ago
    For some reason my husband purchased this book for me. The premise of this book, adult adopted child finds biological parents, offered some promise. However the author slogged us through her depressing experience with her new found parents, sometimes peppered with sarcastic humor, to the point that I stopped reading the book. There was nothing inspiring in the tale, no indication that the author would rise above the situation, no relief from her self pity. Lynn in San Diego
    EMP More than 1 year ago
    The presentation, or style, is very different than what I anticipated. I felt the author's angst, and was captivated to find out what happened next. At the same time, I felt like the author tried very hard to remain impartial. I'm not sure she achieved this, and I'm not sure that it worked best for the story that needed to be told. It seemed she attempted to be the "bigger" person, but I don't feel she pulled it off. I think the book provides a great opportunity for discussion, and analysis. The book holds a very real and powerful message for others who may be searching for their birth parents.
    cuvr2cuvr More than 1 year ago
    Ms. Holmes was fortunate in meeting her birth parents when her personality was already formed. It certainly made for a good read. She is a talented writer,with the ability to make you feel her hope,disappointments, vindication, and fulfillment. It's a ride!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    As an adoptee, currently seeking my biological parents. I didn't think this book was very good. I wouldn't ever pass up the opportunnity or treat my birth parents as bad as she does
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This book had an interesting almost satirical look on society and behaviors on people. Her judgment on her family was harsh, but not unreasonable. Homes was able to pin human emotion without trying to hard. This bold memoir was humorous, depressing, and eye opening. A recommended read for sure.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I am glad I checked this book out at my library rather then spending money on wasted books. It really made no sense. Not even a good story.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I listened to this book on audio book and enjoyed it very much. This is probably the type of book that is better when listened to than read. You can get inside the story and feel the writers emotions. The story is well done and depicts how the adoptee really feels...why sugar coat everything?
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I find this memoir very honest and brave...she is a master of words for she can make you feel how exactly she felt at every got a little bit boring thou when it came to the 'internet searching' thing but nevertheless her findings were still interesting...she ended it well and I would recommend it to everyone.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    In spite of what many would describe as an ideal upper-middle class life Ms Homes takes us on a journey downward where she condemns almost everyone that ever attempted to help her. Yes, she was surrounded by various flawed characters, aren't we all? The difference here is that she intends to makes each of us pay to view her very public flogging of her family seeking revenge and retribution. The more she describes the family she has apparently grown to despise the more she seems exactly like the characters she condemns In the not too distant past one forgave those that unintentionally hurt us. Ms Homes is not satisfied until she makes everyone pay (including us). Sell tickets to your classless revenge play somewhere else
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    When the first part of the book was published in 'The New Yorker' several years, I was very interested, but this expanded book was a disappointment. I guess she had a contract to finish it, and the result is the original article, slightly expanded, followed by a less-than-useful account of her internet search for genelogy. The author's bitterness is hard to take. Life is short seek out answers from people who can provide them. So many other books provide a positive, life-affirming view of adoption, and I think your time is better spend reading them.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    After reading the superior 'The Woman Who Raised Me,' this book was like a slap in the face. If you need any more proof of the young woman's bitterness at being adopted, google her name and listen to one of the several interviews online. Her other books make me wonder why no one flagged her writings like that boy at Virginia Tech. She seems disturbed.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I could not put this book down. It was incredibly interesting, thoughtful, engaging,
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I could o/not put this book down. Insightful and brave and captivating
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    With the 'New Yorker' magazine article publication, it felt like Homes finally consummated numerous compelling revelations about her adoption and subsequent events. It's nonspecificity made her thoughts cosmopolitan and alluring. Her wretchedness seemed intolerable. Her fiction works had authentication. Her book is the antithesis of sophisticated essay. The more explicit her details, the less the essence of her chronicle rivet the reader. Malevolence supplanted empathetic humanism. Indubitably, Homes's adoption lacerated her intellect birthing her fiction. 30 years later, trying to ferret out the cipher from strangers & promiscuous documents is absurd. Her 'imagining my mother' 'page. 130, etc.' is fiction, not memoir. It diminishes the book.