Stories can inspire, create, and heal, but, as The Daughters demonstrates, they can also be destructive. Lulu’s mother is a jazz singer and her grandmother, Ada, works long hours for Nordstrom’s as a seamstress and then pours herself into making Lulu into a world-class singer. This is a novel of mothers and daughters in which fathers are absent or not-fathers. Lulu has recently given birth to, been literally split wide open by, a daughter resulting from a night of passion while on the road for a singing gig. She has no idea who her own father is, nor her grandfather or great grandfather. Both her mother and grandmother refuse to name them and Lulu is torn by whether or not to name, to own, her own daughter’s father and possibly break the curse but risk losing her husband.
The curse comes from a story woven by her grandmother, Ada, to explain the great love affair between her mother, Greta, and her husband in Poland, which produced three lovely sons and a string of stillborn or miscarried daughters until Greta makes a deal with the devil (according to Ada) or sleeps with a local factor man (according to Lulu’s mother). When war hits Poland, Greta and her husband and Ada’s biological father pool all of their resources to send Ada (newly pregnant by a man she will not name) to a cousin in Chicago, to safety.
Once in Chicago, Ada tries to discover the fate of her family, but to no avail. To cope with her loss, she weaves glorious stories of their genesis and her mother’s and brothers’ powers (even of the father who raised her). These stories reinforce the importance of mothers and the bond with their daughters and Ada repeats these stories every day to young Lulu, whose mother becomes more and more distant before finally leaving Lulu altogether. Lulu struggles to combine the powerful love of the stories with her own abandonment by her mother and, as Ada wishes, pours herself into music.
Lulu’s husband, John, is also a wonderful story teller, but, like Ada, he neglects to tell Lulu when a story is a story and not a beautiful reality. The masking power of stories breaks when Ada falls dead as Lulu gives birth and Lulu is left to make meaning of it all.
This is one of those novels that is so beautifully told in the middle that finding a proper ending is difficult and in this, her first novel, Celt does not quite pull it off. The novel ends before the last page and does not end because those of us who were also taken in by Ada’s stories, and by Lulu’s, are left abruptly in the harsh unsatisfying light of reality. Maybe that was her intent.