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Finding a Title, With a Daughter's Help

06/19/2013 10:13 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013
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Children don't get to choose their parents, much less name them. But when it came time for me to find the right title for my novel about a daughter and her mother, my daughter was the person I turned to. She couldn't name me, but she did name my book: The Clover House.

Like many novels, mine began with another name. Like some, it entered a long nameless phase during which editor, author, agent and publisher all tried to come up with something that would combine the right balance of weightiness, intrigue, poetry and enticement. I spent hours making lists of titles, scrawling free-associated names in long columns. I rattled off themes for anyone who would listen, hoping they would divine the perfect title I had overlooked. All this time, the one person who could help me the most was right in front of me, but I was too nervous to ask her.

I knew I should be asking my daughter for help. At twenty, she was certainly old enough to read the book. And she had an exceptional sensibility for narrative and for language. But unsurprisingly, asking your smart, literary daughter to read your debut novel can be a bit fraught. What if she doesn't think it's any good? I was desperate for a title, so I sat her down on a kitchen stool and began to explain what I was worried about.

Since the book draws on stories from my mother's childhood and from my own, I needed to be sure my daughter understood that very little of the novel is unadulterated truth. More than this, my daughter might recognize aspects of my personality in Callie. I needed her to know that I don't share Callie's essential fear of relationships and her deep-down belief that she doesn't deserve love. Her reaction was quick and to the point: "I got it, Mom. I know how this works. It's fiction."

When my daughter came to me a few days later and told me she'd read the novel, I was terrified. "I liked it," she said. "I cried." My instinctive reaction was to feel almost guilty for having made my daughter cry. What kind of mother was I? And then I remembered that, in this case, a reader's tears -- especially my daughter's -- meant a good review.

What had made my daughter sad was that she had seen through my tragedy-inflected version of my mother's happy stories and recognized the real sadness in my mother's life. Blessed with a large and contented family, with a childhood of adventures and privilege, my mother had ended up somehow fundamentally defensive about the world, needing constantly to control it. "How did she end up like that?" she asked. This was precisely the question that had led me to write the novel in the first place.

During my summer visits to Patras, Greece, my mother and my aunts loved to retell the greatest hits of their unfettered childhood in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. My cousin and I did our best to relive our mothers' stories. But the one adventure we never could recreate was the building of the clover houses. During their childhoods, my mother and the aunts spent parts of the summer on their family's farm just outside Patras. There, the overseer used to cut a miniature neighborhood out of the tall forage grass in one of the pastures -- a grass called trifîli that translates best as clover but was probably a combination of clover and rye grass. The children played in this neighborhood of grassy streets and houses made of clover and rye for hours, hidden from the world of adults.

The idea that someone would fashion a house for you where no dwelling was ever foreseen has filled me with longing for as long as I can remember. The creation of a safe and secret place out of almost nothing -- this concept resonates at the heart of The Clover House. Callie's dislocation -- from her relationships, her mother, her heritage -- is a form of what Greeks call xenitia, a self-inflicted exile. And it's that isolation and longing of xenitia that the clover houses came to represent for me. In a sense, The Clover House is my clover house. It's how I created for myself the Patras that I loved and love and the Patras that I never knew. It's a world I shaped from what I already had, just as the farm overseer cut the dwellings and streets from the tall grass. And it's just as fragile, just as ephemeral.

I know now that those afternoons spent listening to all the aunts reminisce, seeing little unspoken understandings and communications pass among them, watching my mother join in the hilarity and reveal a happiness and ease I longed to see in her -- those hours were more valuable, more nourishing to me than any games my cousin and I played in trying to imitate them.

In those storytelling sessions, my mother revealed herself to be a master of cadence and pacing, an expert of the witty phrase. She often found humor and whimsy that others had missed. In fact, it was in those lazy afternoons in Patras that my mother showed me the parts of her that I like to think I have inherited. Her passion for sports found a ready acolyte in me. I share her delight in divining a scenario behind the seemingly random behavior of a passerby. From her I have gotten a determination to balance the physical and the creative -- a belief that a day in which I exercise the body and the imagination is the best kind of day there is.

Still, I couldn't see the connection between my mother's stories and her life. So to solve the puzzle, I wrote new stories, with tragic outcomes, thinking this invented backstory would help me understand her better somehow. I realize now how foolish an errand this was. How could my fictions shed light on my mother's reality?

When I was finished with the book, I was no clearer on my daughter's question of "How did she end up that way?" than when I started. But what The Clover House could do was allow me to recreate in fiction the scene of a daughter coming to understand her mother. I could enact, through Callie's experience, the daughter's discovery of exactly that which allows a kind of forgiveness. I gave my mother, in the guise of Clio, a personal history that explained her injured soul. What I'll never know is what might have happened to my mother long ago to injure hers.

Soon after my daughter asked me her question, I asked her, cautiously, if she had come up with any titles. She answered without hesitation, identifying the heart of the novel and the one image that represented for me the book's emotional core. The Clover House.

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