Rosellen Brown's novels characteristically lob bombshells into well-ordered domestic lives and then calmly assess the ensuing damage. In Tender Mercies (1978), a husband's reckless bravado during a boating trip leads to an accident that leaves his wife paralyzed. Civil Wars (1984) portrays a liberal married couple in Mississippi who receive custody of the two children of Klan-supporting, racist in-laws, killed in a car crash. In Before and After (1992), well-to-do parents discover that their son has murdered his girlfriend. In each book, the page-turning question becomes, Then what?
Another, although comparatively muted explosion gets the plot moving in Brown's fifth novel, Half a Heart (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 402 pages; $24). The year is 1986, and Miriam Vener, Jewish and in her mid-40s, lives in Houston with her ophthalmologist husband Barry and their three children. Amid the splendors of her gated community and rambling, expensive house, Miriam sports a troubled conscience, for she has another child, a half-black daughter whom she has not seen in nearly 18 years. Her husband knows about this chapter of her life, closed before he met her: the time during the mid-'60s she spent teaching history at a small black college in Mississippi; her love affair with a charismatic music teacher named Eljay Reece; their estrangement when she became pregnant, and her anguished assent to his demands that their daughter be raised by him and among people who would accept her as one of them.
But her friends and her three other children are ignorant of this history, and Miriam has grown weary of pretending that a wrenching experience in her past never happened and hiding the fact that she has been living "with half a heart." With her nest temporarily emptied thanks to summer camps, and with her husband's cautious assent, she decides to try to contact the daughter she once surrendered. This plan succeeds with surprising ease; her daughter has also decided to get in touch with Miriam.
Why? Miriam doesn't know, but readers do, since Brown's narrative moves back and forth between the minds of mother and daughter. And it turns out that Veronica Reece, or Ronnee, as she prefers to be called, has accepted, over her militant father's objections, a modest scholarship to Stanford University. He derides the offer as a "Pity the Poor Nigger Scholarship" and tells Ronnee, "You're there, darlin', so their brochures will look good." Since he on principle won't help defray her college expenses, Ronnee wonders if this rich white mother in Texas she's heard about might not turn out to be a "cash cow."
So hidden motives and unannounced expectations accompany the meeting of mother and almost-grown daughter. Miriam flies to New York City, picks up Ronnee at Eljay's Brooklyn apartment and drives to her family's old summer house in New Hampshire, where, she hopes, they can get acquainted in peace and solitude.
Things begin tensely and go downhill from there. Miriam gets a call from Houston saying that her mother has had a heart attack and may be dying. Ronnee refuses to be deposited back in Brooklyn, her financial mission unaccomplished, to face her I-told-you-so father. "You don't want to introduce me to all your friends and your family," Ronnee accuses Miriam and then mockingly imagines the Houston reaction: "Who's this strange girl? Where did all this blackness come from?"