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'Daughter' explores a dysfunctional relationship between father and daughter

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

"To be loved by your father is to be loved by God." That's the first line of Margot, the debut play by Mona Dean, the protagonist of Claudia Dey's latest novel, Daughter.

Mona speaks from experience: She's been in the thrall of her father, Paul, for a while, desperate for his approval, willing to subsume herself into him and his ego. Her need for his love almost wrecks his life.

Daughter is an odd book, interesting at times — it's a noble attempt at telling the story of a family that is dysfunctional in both garden-variety and bizarre ways. The novel doesn't work, but there are some flashes of Dey's usually excellent writing.

It opens with a succinct explanation of the dynamic between Mona and Paul: "The only time I get to be close to my father is when he is betraying his life. When my father is not betraying his life, I hardly hear from him." Paul, a novelist who hasn't published a book in two decades, betrays his life as frequently as many people change toothbrushes. He left Mona's mother out of boredom, and later married a Styrofoam heiress named Cherry.

Then he fell for Lee, his publicist, and enlisted Mona's help in his affair. Mona helps Paul pick out gifts for the other woman, and delivers them to her apartment. "When Paul was with Lee, I was loved by my father," Mona explains, kind of. "Without Paul's love, I was powerless. I had no gravitational pull."

Paul confesses his affair to Cherry, and Mona is left holding the bag. Her half-sister, Eva, writes her a letter cutting her out of her life: "Being good and trustworthy were conditions to remain in Eva's life. I did not meet the conditions to remain in Eva's life. As a result of failing to meet these conditions, I was no longer Eva's sister." Cherry, for her part, declares that Mona is no longer allowed to see Paul unsupervised.

Paul's eye keeps wandering, of course. He embarks on yet another affair, this time with a younger woman named Sigrid. Cherry finds out; Paul might be a brilliant author, but he's not great at covering his tracks. As Mona explains: "Paul was steered by his urges, he was impulsive, insecure, self-obsessed, but he was not a mastermind. He was too sloppy to be a mastermind."

While all this is going on, Mona details the tragic arc of her own life, past and present. She's still traumatized by her mother's suicide attempt when Mona was a child, and by her rape at the hands of a hotshot director as a young woman.

Helping her navigate her traumas are a trio of people: her partner, Wes, an actor-turned-artist-turned-exterminator; her older sister, Juliet; and her longtime best friend, Ani. Mona needs all the help she can get when her pregnancy results in a stillbirth that comes close to killing her, and a subsequent suicide attempt. Throughout all of this, Paul runs hot and cold as usual, but Mona can't cut him out of her life: "I do not know who was the parasite, who was the host. By then Paul and I were indistinguishable, locked by mutual need."

Daughter is an intensely psychological novel, one that poses questions it doesn't, and maybe can't, answer. The dynamic between Mona and Paul is enormously unsettling, but it's never quite clear what happened to make it that way — Mona understands that the relationship is dysfunctional, but doesn't seem interested in exploring why her father manipulates her, or why she lets it happen. This incuriosity isn't consistent with Mona, who is otherwise inward looking and (at times, anyway) self aware.

The novel is mostly told from Mona's (unreliable) point of view, but at times it jarringly pivots to a third-person perspective focusing on other characters. It's an odd technique that doesn't really open up the other players in the novel — as a result, characters like Ani and Wes become largely unexplored ciphers, and family members like Cherry and Eva are cast as one-dimensional villains.

And while Dey is clearly a talented writer, with a gift for some memorable turns of phrase, the prose in Daughter is mostly repetitive and plodding, making it difficult for the reader to sustain interest. The novel reads like a confession without remorse, an emotional unburdening without insight. Dey has crafted wonderful novels before, and is almost certain to do it again, but this one is a misfire — a claustrophobic book that can't quite think of anything to say.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.