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Mother Daughter Widow Wife

A Novel

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*Finalist for the 2021 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction​*

From the author of Girls on Fire comes a “sharp and soulful and ferociously insightful” (Leslie Jamison) novel centered around a woman with no memory, the scientists studying her, and the daughter who longs to understand.

Wendy Doe is a woman with no past and no future. Without any memory of who she is, she’s diagnosed with dissociative fugue, a temporary amnesia that could lift at any moment—or never at all—and invited by Dr. Benjamin Strauss to submit herself for experimental observation at his Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research. With few better options, Wendy feels she has no choice.

To Dr. Strauss, Wendy is a female body, subject to his investigation and control. To Strauss’s ambitious student, Lizzie Epstein, she’s an object of fascination, a mirror of Lizzie’s own desires, and an invitation to wonder: once a woman is untethered from all past and present obligations of womanhood, who is she allowed to become?

To Alice, the daughter she left behind, Wendy Doe is an absence so present it threatens to tear Alice’s world apart. Through their attempts to untangle Wendy’s identity—as well as her struggle to construct a new self—Wasserman has crafted an “artful meditation on memory and identity” (The New York Times Book Review) and a journey of discovery, reckoning, and reclamation. “A timely examination of memory, womanhood and power,” (Time) Mother Daughter Widow Wife will leave you “utterly riveted” (BuzzFeed).

This reading group guide for Mother Daughter Widow Wife includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Exploring the intricacies of identity and memory, Mother Daughter Widow Wife is a powerful investigation of who, and what, a woman can become. A vivid examination of the iconic roles of mother, daughter, widow, and wife, this unforgettable novel traces the journey of a woman with no memory of her past—Wendy Doe, subject of experimental observation at the Meadlowlark Institute for Memory Research—the daughter she left behind, and the research assistant who becomes fascinated with her plight. A jaw-dropping, multivoiced journey of discovery, reckoning, and reclamation, Mother Daughter Widow Wife is an ambitious inquiry into selfhood by an expert and enthralling storyteller.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. After dinner with her mother, Lizzie reflects on “how inessential she’d discovered herself to be” (17). What makes her feel inessential in this moment? Her mother, her childhood home? Leaving Los Angeles and her boyfriend? The thought of Wendy Doe?

2. Why does Alice decide to retrace her mother’s steps?

3. Why does Elizabeth invite Alice to stay? What is she looking for, in Alice?

4. Describe the purpose of the chapters written from Wendy’s point of view. Usually short on plot, what do they add to the story?

5. After an important conversation with Wendy, Lizzie theorizes that autobiographical memory forms the self. Do you agree or disagree?

6. Why does Wendy say she’s not interested in discovering who she was before the fugue state? Do you believe her?

7. Describe the story of Augustine, as told by Elizabeth. Can you draw a connection between her life and Wendy’s? Lizzie’s?

8. Elizabeth says, “History, like writing, is an exercise in decision making” (104). What does she mean by this? How does this truism play out in her life?

9. The Meadowlark Institute occupies a great deal of space in this novel, serving as home and workplace to varying degrees for the women in its orbit. What’s the relevance of the institute’s history? Of its layout and location?

10. Why does Alice seek out Zach? What does she get from their encounters? How does his betrayal affect her?

11. Wendy is fascinated by people who can’t stop remembering—twelve-step groups, survivor groups, PTSD support groups. Dr. Strauss calls her capacity to forget her “superpower.” Do you think this is accurate? What does he mean by that?

12. Describe the beginning of Lizzie and Dr. Strauss’s sexual relationship. Who initiates it? What changes between them? What stays the same?

13. Alice’s father calls Wendy Doe a “symptom . . . Her mother was her mother” (260). How do you believe Wendy Doe fits into Karen Clark?

14. What are the dimensions of Mariana’s relationship with Dr. Strauss? What did she do for him? What did she mean to him, and him to her?

15. How does the secret of Alice’s parentage change your understanding of the characters, particularly Dr. Strauss?

16. How would you describe the relationship between Lizzie and Wendy? When Karen recovers her memory, what happens to that relationship?

17. Do you think Karen remembered any part of Wendy’s experience? What’s the role of baby Alice in this process?

18. At the end of the novel, what does Elizabeth decide? Does she move forward through remembrance or forgetting?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read Robin Wasserman’s debut adult novel, Girls on Fire.

2. To learn more about Robin Wasserman and Mother Daughter Widow Wife, visit www.robinwasserman.com/.
Photograph by Nina Subin

Robin Wasserman is the author of Mother Daughter Widow Wife, and Girls on Fire, an NPR and BuzzFeed Best Book of the Year. She is a graduate of Harvard College with a Master’s in the history of science. She lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for television.

The Millions, LitHub, and Buzzfeed's Most Anticipated of 2020

"[An] artful meditation on memory and identity... Wasserman’s ability to weave big ideas seamlessly into plot is impressive. The result is a warning against the dangers of letting others warp our identities while remaining cleareyed about the importance and inescapability of human connection."
The New York Times Book Review

"In Wasserman’s timely examination of memory, womanhood and power, Wendy’s daughter sets out to find her mother — and their situation only grows more grave."
Time Magazine

"Wasserman’s sophomore novel is a labyrinthine story about memory, truth, and power, told in two timelines."
Buzzfeed Book Club

"This is an unexpected novel, full of philosophical questions about how we become who we are, what it takes to become someone else, and how much power others hold over even our own understandings of self."
New York Journal of Books

"Elizabeth, a 48-year-old widow, is forced to re-examine her marriage when a teenager shows up at her doorstep. The girl is the daughter of “Wendy Doe, ” a woman with a severe form of amnesia whom Elizabeth had studied nearly two decades earlier as a research fellow under a charismatic adviser, her then-married future husband."
Wall Street Journal

“An enthralling, gritty, and altogether unpredictable read that holds nothing back … You will be utterly riveted.”
–Buzzfeed

"Ultimately, in addition to the slipperiness of memory and identity, this is a story of love, friendship, and family with an intense beating heart. The way these women find their way back to themselves is through each other."
Broad Street Review

"An incredibly stimulating and brainy novel, but it is also compassionate and compelling ... This is a carefully plotted and well-constructed novel ... written in a tone that feels provocative and wicked."
BookReporter.com

"Mother Daughter Widow Wife... dives into hard questions of consent and love and power, what it means to remember, and the appeal of anonymity."
Alma

"Wasserman asks big questions about how well we can really know another person, the nature of truth as it relates to memory, and what this all means for how we perceive ourselves... [the novel] ultimately has some great twists and all those questions Wasserman raises make it an excellent book discussion choice."
Booklist

"Shrewd, beguiling... This examination of how one man in power can abuse the women closest to him delivers the goods."
Publishers Weekly

"For readers of stylish psychological thrillers."
Library Journal

“Mother Daughter Widow Wife is suspenseful, keenly intelligent, and thoroughly engrossing. Robin Wasserman’s novel explores the complexities of memory and identity with unflinching clarity and deep compassion.”
—Tom Perrotta, author of Mrs. Fletcher

“Mother Daughter Widow Wife is an utterly enthralling piece of music, sharp and soulful and ferociously insightful all at once, uncompromising in its willingness to look at the dark pulse lurking inside every love. This singular, spellbinding novel is not only an investigation of how female intimacy plays out across landscapes shaped by male power and desire, but an exploration of identity itself—the complicated alchemies of narrative, memory, desire, enthrallment and betrayal that compose us all.”
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Recovering and Make It Scream, Make It Burn

“Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife is an elegant postulate on the myriad ways we abandon ourselves. Whether disassociating from our bodies during sex, betraying who we believe ourselves to be in a quest to achieve more or losing an entire lifetime of memories, Wasserman’s deft narrative braids her characters’ disparate attempts at escape into a single, moving pluralism: we spend our lives constructing elaborate ‘selves’ only to find that the palaces we’ve built may also be our prisons. Wasserman has a unique gift for describing the turbulent intersection of love and need, hinting that the freedom we seek may only be the freedom to change.”
—Liz Phair, author of Horror Stories

"Mother Daughter Widow Wife is more than a compelling novel; it's a psychological engagement with the pressing question of what it means to occupy a woman's body in 21st century North America. Wasserman has given us the whole package: a book that makes you both think and feel, with a story driven by the radically mysterious movements of the human heart."
—Lydia Peelle, author of The Midnight Cool

“For a novel so steeped in questions of identity, and so engaged in exploring how the roles we inhabit—and are forced to inhabit—inform the construction of self, it’s fitting that Mother Daughter Widow Wife satisfies on a multitude of seemingly incongruent levels: as riveting page-turner; as psychologically rich and emotionally nuanced portrait of intersecting lives; as intellectually dazzling meditation on memory and trauma. As in the novels of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Dana Spiotta, these elements are somehow seamlessly fused. I’d venture the reason is Wasserman’s prose, which moves at the speed of synapses firing, and is spunky and lyrical and beautifully, humanly alive.”
—Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen and What’s Important Is Feeling