A Voice to Be Reckoned With: The Daughters by Adrienne Celt

Adrienne Celt’s debut novel, The Daughters, begins with a myth. Before even introducing herself, the novel’s narrator, Lulu, transports us to the Polish countryside by recounting the myth of the Rusalka, a humming siren who sits naked in a tree. The men she attracts die at her touch. She remains in the tree, humming, seducing, naked, alone. Though the Rusalka plays a small role in The Daughters, its presence sets the tone for this lyric, generational novel: At any moment, stories — plus myths, fables, and lies — threaten to unsettle each character’s place in the world.

Lulu’s everyday life is only a bit less fantastic than the Rusalka’s. An internationally-renowned opera soprano, Lulu lives in Chicago with her husband John, a man both paranoid and uxorious, and their baby daughter, Kara. We meet Lulu days after the birth of her daughter, as she navigates motherhood and grieves for her recently passed grandmother, Ada. On the day her daughter comes into the world, Ada dies from a heart attack.

The loss of Ada pairs with another: the loss of Lulu’s voice. After a difficult pregnancy, her doctors advise her not to sing until she regains her strength. But for Lulu, her “voice is [her] everything,” and, stripped of her singing, she begins to wonder whether these accruing losses are coincidental, or if Lulu and her entire maternal line, as her mother insists, are cursed.

Here, the novel diverts away from its real-time narrative. Lulu spends the majority of the book recalling the stories that enlivened her childhood. As a girl, Lulu was saturated in stories. The most prominent one concerns her great-grandmother, Greta, the “formidable, tobacco-spitting, knuckle-handed” matriarch who may have cursed the family by making a deal with the devil. In order for Lulu to make sense of her losses, she must uncover the truth about Greta. However, as Lulu discovers, “The truth lay, as it so often does, between the two stories. In the cracks and crevices where they seeped into one another.”

Those two stories are the divergent accounts of Ada and, Lulu’s estranged mother, Sara, an alcoholic jazz singer. Greta’s life, rendered by Ada, is the stuff of a fable, but Sara reduces Greta to an adulterer, a woman who “cursed [the maternal line] because her heart was untrue.”

According to the curse each subsequent daughter will be more beautiful and talented than her mother. If this sounds less like a curse than the American Dream, it is to the credit of Celt. The novel complicates and inverts the apparent benefit of familial progress. One of the disconcerting pleasures of the book is trying to understand what, exactly, is so horrifying about the potential of a highly-talented daughter. Through Sara — and, to a lesser extent, John — we see the toll of eclipsed success. If Sara were to support her daughter’s career, unconditionally, she would have to accept her artistic mediocrity. So is she selfish? Or protective of her own talents?

Celt does well to resist giving an answer. The novel’s strength lies in its unsettling account of motherhood. How much should a mother sacrifice for the good of her child? When is sacrifice too demanding? At the loss of a career? At the loss of a relative? Writers like Maggie Nelson, Heidi Julavits, and Rachel Zucker have asked similar questions about the intersection of writing and motherhood in their recent books. And the Megan Daum-edited, Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, gathers essays by women writers who have elected not to have children. While The Daughters loosely engages that conversation, Celt’s interest in the generational repercussions of motherhood widens the novel’s focus. She aims for one of life’s most difficult questions: Should we be held accountable for being alive?

Lulu works through this idea in one of the novel’s most powerful passages:

What I mean is, was Ada’s death my fault? Was it Kara’s? . . . But what about Greta and her boys? All those baby girls born blue, who never breathed air, never felt the sun on their skin. Never had skin, some of them, to speak of. What about the children dead during one of the rehearsals for Kristallnacht, lying in the street on beds of window shards? What about a girl on a table being given a shot of poison slowly, into her spinal column? And another shot of poison, and another? All those girls. Did we reach our hands between their ribs, between the sinew of years and bones, and take their heartbeats for our own?

If they had to die so we can live, then yes, right? Somehow we did.

How do we live, Celt asks, knowing that historical suffering created the circumstances of our births? What stories must we tell ourselves to assuage the pain of past generations? Are there any stories so potent? Celt is not as pessimistic as the above passage might suggest. She believes wholeheartedly in the power of storytelling. The Daughters is a lush and intelligent exploration of the stories that enrich our lives, and the sacrifices we make to for the ones that we love.

Click here to read “Lulu”, an excerpt from The Daughters, as part of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.

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