DAUGHTERS – A Reader’s Guide

Q: In the beginning of the book, Helen is struggling with infer­tility. Was that drawn from personal experience?

A: Yes, definitely. I struggled with infertility for three years. There was nothing I wanted more than to be a mother. The desire to carry and birth a child was hardwired in me. Being met with infertility was not just disappointing, it was devastat­ing, as if I had been robbed of something primal. The letdown that followed each “failed” month nearly consumed me.

Q: That begs the question: Did the infertility lead to adoption? Do you have a daughter from China?

A: I do. She’s ten years old now, and we adopted her when she was one year old. But my story is different from Helen’s. My husband and I were in the thick of the adoption process, only months away from being matched with a baby when we dis­covered that I was pregnant—something that had never hap­pened in three years of trying. So we put our adoption on hold, had our firstborn, and then quickly hopped back into line to resume the adoption. My husband and I each had the strong sense that we were meant to do both: birth and adopt, as if our good fortune came in a bundle of two. Our “twin” daughters—one adopted, one biological—were a package deal for us.

Q: What was that like, adopting from China?

A: The waiting was the hardest part, but the process was smooth and the reward was great. It’s a sad state of affairs in China with the one child per family law still alive and well in many parts of the country, but I have to give China credit for the efforts they’ve made to get as many of their abandoned babies adopted and into the arms of loving families. It’s the silver lining to an unfortunate policy.

Q: We find out that Helen’s fears about adoption aren’t simple. She fears that an adoptive daughter may not love her and ulti­mately might leave her.

A: Helen’s greatest fear is that she’ll be left. A mother who died and a father who walked away have scarred her heart. She’s uncertain about the staying power of even a child she has yet to meet. Helen’s insecurity about her lot in life, as well as her relationships, defines who she is when we first meet her. She’s self-centered and insecure because of what has happened to her, not because of who she is organically. It gives her a lot of room to grow. Watching her mature to the point where she is able to step up and stand in for Claire shows that she finally gets it.

Q: Throughout the book, you stop short Helen’s happiness by imposing an obstacle. Why couldn’t you just let Helen get what she wanted?

 A: I was intrigued by the notion—a universal truth, really—that joy and grief fight for space in our lives. I liked the idea that Helen would have to find happiness—or at least, peace—with the notion that she did get what she wanted, a baby, the start of a family, but she also lost Claire. That’s a tough one to juggle, and it’s an extreme example of the cards we’re some­times dealt in life. I liked exploring the notion that life throws us curveballs, the idea that finally, finally, Helen got what she needed—a daughter. And now she was ready to play house, hang out with her sister, and even reconcile with her estranged father. She had a plan. The idea that we must deal with the good and the bad, simultaneously, all of the time, is ubiqui­tous. Helen—the younger sister who always relied on her older sister—now had the chance to be strong, and she was, proving it by not only caring for her new daughter, but also her sister’s daughter, then ultimately, more children.

Q: You seem to have intimate knowledge of the “sister” rela­tionship. Do you have one?

A: I don’t have a sister, but writing about the relationship came easy to me; it was a bond that was natural to imagine: the tug of war for Helen between loving and needing Claire, while at the same time trying to break free to become her own person. Helen would have never wanted Claire to die, but it took Claire dying for Helen to see clearly. She would have never tested the limits of her strength and courage if Claire had continued to be her safety net. In writing this, the day I realized that Claire had to die was a sad one for me. The decision resonated well with me in terms of it being the right thing to do, but I mourned her loss from Helen’s point of view.

Q: Why is Helen so determined to reconnect with Larry?

 A: Larry represents the family she so desperately misses. Her mother is gone, and even while Claire’s alive, she doesn’t allow Helen to wallow in the past. Helen knows that Larry is her guy; he’s the one to share in her residual grief. Neither of them have any interest in packing away the past; they want to hold it, pol­ish it, treasure it. Helen sees herself in Larry, a guy who didn’t always do the right thing, who was sometimes short on cour­age, but always meant well and loved deeply.

Q: Helen thinks in terms of food: “My daughter, the words that used to get caught in my throat as I thought about adoption, were now smooth and welcoming, like a caramel melting in my mouth” (p. 66). Is food a big part of your life?

A: I’m a huge fan of food—good food—and luckily, my hus­band is a wonderful chef who whips us up delicious creations more nights than not. Though I don’t have the same skills, I definitely respect the curative value of food, the comfort that can be bestowed from a delicious meal. I’m the type of person who wakes up each day thinking about what I’m going to eat.

Q: After Claire dies, Helen admits that there are certain things that she likes about her new situation: Ross and Maura living across the street, Larry back in the picture. Is it okay for Helen to be happy even after losing her sister?

A: Definitely. Claire would have wanted Helen to be happy, just as much as their mother would have rooted for her daughters’ happiness. Helen comes to see that there are no promises of the future, that we don’t always get to play the roles we want for an entire lifetime. She says, “Sickness and accidents steal lives all the time, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t live.” Her acceptance that life is often brief is the greatest demonstration of her growth and maturity.

Q: You named your book Daughters for a Time. Is that related to this notion?

A: It occurred to me that all of my characters—Helen, Claire, Sam, and Maura—were all daughters. But each—in her own way—had been robbed of that position. That notion struck me as terribly sad, because who wouldn’t want to be a daugh­ter forever? Being a daughter implies that one’s not alone, that there is parental comfort, security, and loving arms nearby. 

Q: Helen admires the faith she saw in her mother, Claire, and her friend Amy DePalma. Can faith be taught or do some peo­ple “just have it?”

A: I quite admire the Catholic faith and the tradition and ritual that goes into each Mass, but I didn’t grow up as a Catholic so still, so much of the time, I feel like I’m missing some ele­ments that others—the truly faithful—have. Often, I admire true faith when I see it and I wish that mine were deeper. I do see it as a gift.