This is not only a daughter’s memoir about the realities of her mother’s life, but also a work of history about an inhumane system and a reminder to always consider the pain others may be hiding. Readers will find it hard not to flinch over the fraught lives of Dorothy and her family, but this thoughtful account creates a context for compassion.
Cowan creates a vivid history of the Foundling Hospital ... At times, Cowan’s bitter memories of her own unhappiness growing up with a difficult mother threaten to overwhelm Eileen’s story, which, though tragic, is more compelling ... For some, the story of mother-daughter discord will resonate, while others might be intrigued by Dorothy’s childhood and still others fascinated by an institution whose history was as illustrious as it was wretched. In short, there is something for everyone in these provocative pages.
The propulsive parts of the book come as Cowan uncovers the past that her mother was so intent on hiding ... Like an experienced litigator, Cowan shows us one exhibit after another, building a case that her mother was a victim of this harsh system. Sections of the book feel padded with term-papery digressions. I found myself longing to hear less from the card catalog, and more from Cowan’s mother ... Cowan sometimes paints her as a villainess without providing the evidence to support it ... The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is a frustrating endeavor, in the end. It does evoke sympathy for Eileen—Eileen was her mother’s real name—just as Cowan clearly hoped it would ... But it does not heal the injury that sent Cowan on this mission, the crack in the bowl.
The author’s historical analysis of the misogyny and classism that underlay the institution’s outwardly humanitarian mission makes this memoir especially compelling. Well-researched and highly personal, the book presents a fascinating narrative tapestry that both informs and moves. A candidly illuminating debut memoir.