In My Mother’s House: Annette Trevzer

In My Mother’s House is a novel about family presented in interlacing and alternating perspectives of a mother and a daughter. The novel revolves around the women’s coming to terms with memories of the family’s past and their present identities. The mother, Genevieve, was born in Vienna before the outbreak of World War II. Her story is largely composed of her memories of her childhood in Austria and their grand home in Vienna, the Hofzeile, which was lost in the ravages of the war. As the daughter of a father who was a factory owner, a monarchist, and a professor of history, Genevieve describes her upbringing in a bourgeois household that evokes admonition to “never let American perfume touch your skin.” But underneath this genteel comfortable life the family is battling increasing prejudice and persecution first by the Austrian socialists and then by the Nazi regime, and despite their conversion to Catholicism the family eventually has to flee to America. In many ways, Genevieve’s narrative is a tribute to her own mother, Rosette, whose courage and resourcefulness save their lives; and it is a gift of the past to her daughter Elizabeth. For Elizabeth, born in Mississippi and living in suburban Chicago, her mother’s European past is a mystery, unaccessible not only because her mother rarely speaks of the past but also because she is the last survivor of her family. As Elizabeth is growing up, she attempts to piece together the remaining fragments of family history in the form of the sketchy stories of relatives and the few heirlooms that were safely brought to America. A major point of confusion for Elizabeth is the Nazi persecution of her apparently Catholic family, a confusion that is only gradually resolved with her discovery of her Jewish heritage. Elizabeth’s story is a classic coming of age narrative, a story of a daughter who tries to discover her identity. The symptom of Elizabeth’s struggle to accept her roots is her eating disorder, which stems from the trauma effect of the Holocaust that still radiates into her American life. The novel touches on the complex psychological processes that intertwine the home of origin with the present home in America in a variety of ways that impact the identities of both mother and daughter. In this narrative of female identity formation, two generations of women struggle with the ghost of patriarchy in the figure of the grandfather. For Elizabeth in particular there are many mysteries: Why did her grandfather return to Vienna after the war, leaving his daughter behind in America? Why did he remarry immediately after his courageous wife, Rosette, died? And why did he exclude from his memoirs his own daughter and granddaughter? Who was he as a historian and family man? In writing the story of this family– a story with autobiographical overtones–Margaret McMullan muses on the gendered histories that men and women write. She opposes the patriarchal history of the grandfather, a professor of world history concerned with facts and objectivity, with the histories that the women tell. The women’s histories are marked by a longing for “home,” the desire to know their roots, their “mother’s house.” Yet the mother’s house is ultimately unknowable. Destroyed in World War II, the family’s home is only available in memory and history and thus simultaneously symbolizes the desire for knowing the mother’s past and its ever receding possibility to do so.