DAUGHTER, by Claudia Dey
“Why had Shakespeare not called the play ‘King Lear’s Daughters?’” The question, tucked into a jittery monologue by Mona Dean, the narrator of Claudia Dey’s new novel, “Daughter,” gives us a clue for the setting of this darkly glittering tale. We are inside a howl.
As in “Lear,” we begin with a banishment, the latest crisis in a family well versed in division. Mona is the daughter of Paul Dean, a writer whose own novel “Daughter” was published when Mona and her sister Juliet were adolescents — just after he left their mother. His book’s runaway success entombed his reputation; he hasn’t published since.
Paul’s infidelities have been more consistent. Now remarried to Cherry and the father of a third daughter, Eva, he has begun another affair — and made Mona, just beginning her career as an actress and playwright, his sole confidante. When Paul’s cheating reaches a breaking point, he confesses everything to Cherry, including Mona’s role as secret keeper and her scathing analysis of their marriage. “I was neither good nor trustworthy,” Mona says, paraphrasing a letter she receives from Eva, cutting off all communication. “She was sure I would turn her pain into a play, and call it art.”
Having used Mona as a human shield, Paul is forgiven and slinks back to Cherry unscathed. “When a white man is described as a genius, even once,” Mona recalls her best friend saying, “he can get away with anything including murder.”
But Dey is less interested in unpacking or satirizing Paul than she is in Mona, who may be her own, more intriguing form of art monster. For the narrator, Paul’s attention — in the form of stolen dinners and confessional late-night phone calls of the only-you-understand-me variety — not only created a thrilling intimacy with her elusive father, but it also filled her with an “aggressive energy” that fueled her writing. “I wrote my play during the course of his affair,” she says, “as if one depended on the other, one powered the other, as if I did not write my play, but Paul’s confidante did.”
Dey is a playwright herself, and her previous novel, “Heartbreaker,” paired narrative invention with a playful command of voice. Here, by contrast, she balances feverish melodrama with chilled and precise prose. The writing is streamlined, forensic. Time bends as Mona takes us through layers of family trauma, and her first-person narration occasionally tilts to imagine the perspectives of those closest to her. Some of these vignettes are frustrating; Mona’s husband, best friend and sister Juliet are allowed depth and color while Cherry remains a cipher of cruelty and spite, Eva all smug effrontery. But the shifts in time and point of view are always deft; if Mona is lost, the reader is not.
Nor can we look away. When a personal tragedy wrenches Mona’s attention away from internecine family conflicts and into her struggling body, Dey’s evocations of loss are stunning. Throughout the novel, spiraling grief is shot through with spiky, often comic descriptions. Mona’s mother is “Marilyn Monroe had Marilyn Monroe driven a sedan and worked at a radio station.” Mona and Juliet blind copy each other on emails to Paul and Eva, then anxiously await the other sister’s review. An entirely satisfying fistfight is narrated by onlookers filming on cellphones.
The question of authorship — of art, of self — hangs over the novel: Is Mona the titular daughter of Paul’s novel? Is the real Mona his creation still? There are no clean borders here. “Daughter” is a title, a curse, a privilege, a mystery, a gift. It may even be a choice.
In Act One, King Lear banishes his daughter Cordelia, and by Act Five she will have gone to war for her father and lost her life. In “Daughter,” Mona wages her own war, over her power as a writer, and as a woman. This beautiful and piercing novel is her hard-won victory.
Meg Howrey is the author, most recently, of “They’re Going to Love You.”
DAUGHTER | By Claudia Dey | 251 pp. | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $27