April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

by Janet Kauffman

Oblique, filled with impressionistically vivid imagery and almost grudgingly touching, this slender novel is a profound contribution to the literature of the intricate relationship between mothers and daughters. The narrator, who lives on a Pennsylvania tobacco farm with her parents, was named Andrea Doria (after the cruise ship that sank in a 1956 accident) by her not-too-devout Mennonite mother. The mother tells of having had affairs with three men from the same family—an elderly man, his son and his grandson. It’s not clear whether she is telling Andrea a parable or the truth. The mother’s idea of reality is, after all, as sinuous as her idea of God: “Marketeers, spoilers, grabbers, blasters, mashers, hounds, the whole hoopla—that, she says, is what the idea of God has made of decent men. Oh, my baby, she says, what you don’t know.” Andrea’s father is a shadowy figure—not bad, just not there in any substantial way. (It’s also not clear how, if at all, he fit into the mother’s trinity of lovers.) So when the mother suffers a stroke, Andrea and her brother have to cope with the effects of the affliction, including a sudden pathological hatred of groundhogs, more or less on their own. What happens, though, seems less important than Andrea’s attempt to find a language with which to express her emotions—usually, though far from always, loving ones—for her mother. As she showed in her short story collection Places in the World a Woman Could Walk, Kauffman has a genius for indirect communication, as if truths were being shouted from around a corner. At the end, Andrea Doha wonders how she will one day describe her mother to her own daughter and decides, “I’ll tell her about tobacco, a velvet plant, unwieldy. I’ll give her my mother’s binoculars. If she asks for more facts, I’ll tell what I know. I know this. I’ll say, sweet pie, forget the facts. Remember, your grandmother wasn’t herself. Remember that.” (Knopf, $13.95)

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