cover image The History of Great Things

The History of Great Things

Elizabeth Crane. Harper Perennial, $14.99 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-241267-6

A mother and daughter narrate each other’s life stories in Crane’s ambitious, quasi-autobiographical novel. When Lois Crane leaves her husband to pursue a career as an opera singer, dragging her young daughter, Betsy, to New York City, it’s the beginning of a mother-daughter relationship that only becomes more strained and complicated over the years. In an attempt to bond as adults, Lois and Betsy sit down together, each one telling the other’s life story from birth to the present, embellishing and editorializing where necessary. Betsy describes Lois as a young child, then as a young woman going through college and motherhood, moving to New York, falling in love for the second time, and finding some nominal success as a singer. In Lois’s account, Betsy stumbles through some fairly rote rites of passage, then falls into aimlessness and alcoholism as an adult, before sobering up and finding her calling as a writer. Peppered with touching moments in which the women find unexpected common ground, as well as hilariously snarky asides between Betsy and Lois at the end of each chapter, the mother-daughter dynamic feels genuine. However, the gimmick of an author named Elizabeth Crane writing about a character named Elizabeth (“Betsy”) Crane strains the book, and the narrative voices are so similar it’s often hard to tell where Lois cuts off and Betsy picks up. The confusing finish, in which Betsy and Lois craft several endings of varying degrees of happiness, fails to deliver on the intriguing premise. (Apr.)