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The Intertwining of Love and Law:

A Review of Ayelet Waldman's Recent Novel Daughter's Keeper


Friday, Jan. 30, 2004

Ayelet Waldman is an intriguing figure. A Harvard Law graduate, Waldman decided to switch careers. Now, she's an at-home mom and novelist. Meanwhile, she also teaches drug law at Berkeley's law school, Boalt Hall.

Previously, Waldman wrote a series of novels, the "Mommy Track Mysteries," which centered on a character -- also a lawyer and mom -- who was loosely based on Waldman herself. Her new novel, Daughter's Keeper, is a departure, in that it does not continue the series. But it does continue to confront two topics that plainly fascinate Waldman: mother-child relationships, and the law, particularly the drug laws.

Daughter's Keeper

is a moving, well-crafted portrait of a tenuous, evolving mother-daughter relationship set against the harsh, fixed set of rules embodied by the federal drug sentencing guidelines.

The novel's plot feels somewhat reminiscent of a fact pattern on a law school final exam. Nevertheless, Waldman succeeds in making it come alive. She makes you feel for the characters -- you want to find out what happens to them. How they will find their footing in a world where the legal system suddenly seems set against them? This central question provides the novel's main suspense.

A Legal Novel That Focuses on a Defendant and Her Family, Not a Lawyer

Unlike in the standard John Grisham or Scott Turow legal thriller, the protagonist in Daughter's Keeper is not the lawyer -- here, a public defender who plays a secondary role. Instead, the protagonist is the defendant, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Olivia.

Olivia is the only child of Elaine, a pharmacy owner in Berkeley. Elaine raised Olivia as a single mother, and always held herself a little apart from Olivia, rather than reveling in the maternal role. After a college stint full of protests and some experimentation, Olivia spends a term abroad in Mexico, where she has a fling with Jorge.

Jorge gives up what little he has in Mexico, and follows Olivia back to California, where he moves in with her. Olivia finds that she has fallen out of love with Jorge. But out of guilt, she is unable to end things. Elaine and Olivia quarrel over her relationship with Jorge, who does not seem to have much potential. But Olivia refuses to listen to her mother's concerns, taunting her instead for not liking Jorge for ethnic and class reasons.

In the end, Elaine's worst nightmare comes true: Jorge decides to start dealing drugs to make money, and Olivia is implicated -- despite the fact that she opposes the drug deal, and tries to talk Jorge out of it. Olivia is indicted as part of a drug conspiracy merely because she takes a phone message for him about the drug deal, and later, finds herself waiting in the car while he picks up the drugs, because she has no other way to get home. To top it off, Olivia finds out, while waiting for the trial, that she is pregnant with Jorge's child.

A Novel That Is Also a Critique of the Sentencing Guidelines

In the courtroom, Waldman shows us that the judge and courtroom personnel see Olivia impersonally, as just another defendant. But she makes us to see Olivia from a mother's perspective: "The judge would know, just by looking at her, that she was not the mother of a drug dealer. He would see Olivia for what she was, a confused young girl, the victim of some kind of misunderstanding. He would release her into her mother's care, where she belonged."

But these hopes are far from fulfilled. (Warning: A few plot "spoilers" follow.) Olivia faces a stiff four-year sentence for her trivial role in the drug deal -- even though she is found guilty only of the telephone message count of the indictment. In explaining why, Waldman offers a trenchant critique of the federal sentencing guidelines -- which have often been criticized for taking too much discretion away from judges.

Why does Olivia get a harsh sentence for her trivial role? In part, it is because the sentencing guidelines are severe on those who participate in drug dealing even in very small ways. In part, it is because those in a drug conspiracy are sentenced based on the weight of the drugs at issue -- here, fifty-five grams of methamphetamine. And in part, it is because, as Waldman makes clear, even criminal conduct of which one has been acquitted can still form the basis for sentencing -- as it does in Olivia's case.

Olivia's public defender, Izaya, who falls in love with Olivia, asks the judge for a downward departure from the applicable sentencing guideline range. Specifically, he asks for a lower sentence, and urges the judge to allow her to serve it in home detention, not prison time. But his requests are refused.

An Unusual Legal Novel That Focuses Primarily on Relationships, Not Plot

In the end, Olivia gives birth to the child she is carrying, whom she names Luna. But while Olivia is in jail (she must serve her full sentence), it is Elaine who decides to take care of Luna. Waldman writes knowingly about the relationship among the three women, capturing the beauty and pathos of the bonds between grandmother, mother, and child.

Waldman's focus on family relationships, and on characterization, differentiates her from most legal thriller writers. The law may provide this book's plot and subtext, but these relationships are the heart of the book, and its main theme is that of a mother's sacrifice for her child. (Indeed, Waldman does not even bother to follow up on one dramatic plot point -- Will Olivia's verdict be overturned on appeal? -- that would doubtless form the core of a Grisham or Turow novel.)

One of the novel's most intriguing metaphors sees motherhood as a "sentence" -- though not a punitive one. For instance, near the end of the novel, while deciding whether to take on the care of Luna while Olivia is in jail, Elaine reflects that:

She had never understood, until now, the fundamental truth: that the sentence of motherhood had no limit. There was no cap. There was no maximum amount of love you were compelled to extend, no point at which you would have served your full sentence.

Cleverly, Waldman implies that motherhood is just as inflexible as the law -- but in an altogether different way: Its unending love and commitment are what is set in stone.

Waldman suggests that redemption lies not in the legal system, but only in our bonds with others--in the relationships between mother and daughter, in familial love--and what me make of them.

Laura Hodes, a 2000 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a frequent FindLaw guest columnist and book reviewer, is an attorney and writer living in Chicago. Her work can be found on this site's guest column and book review archives, as well as in Slate and The New Republic Online.

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