Everything My Mother Taught Me

Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky

This short story by renowned author Alice Hoffman tells the story of Adeline, a 12-year-old girl left to grow up fast after the untimely death of her gentle, loving, and patient father. Now solely in the care of her cruel, uncaring mother, a regular at the local taverns with both the married and unmarried men in town, Adeline decides on the day of her father’s death to simply stop speaking. A caring mother would have been concerned, but not Nora Ivie. Instead, she mocks her daughter, fueling even more the hatred Adeline already has for her.

Now, with no man to support her or real skills that would enable her to get a proper job, Nora lands a housekeeper post for a lighthouse on a remote island. On the very day of their arrival, Nora immediately sets her sights on Rowan, one of the three male lighthouse keepers. Never mind that he’s married with a young son, or that she, herself is recently widowed. Nora is back to her old tricks in no time, with no regard as to how her behavior might affect her daughter or to the negative implications that could arise for everyone involved. The ironic thing is that, in this remote, physically challenging environment, Adeline finds peace and even happiness serving as a caretaker for the island’s young children and befriending Rowan’s wife, Julia.

As time passes, and Adeline becomes increasingly bothered by her mother’s dalliance with Rowan and its effect on Julia, she becomes a driving force–whether unwittingly or on purpose is up to the reader to decide–in shattering the status quo on the island and between her friend Julia and her husband Rowan. The events that follow are surprising and unexpected and will have the reader racing through the story to find out just what happens to these four main characters in the end.

Despite its brevity, Everything My Mother Taught Me is not lacking in details or depth, and the characters are extremely well developed. Hoffman also works in a quite detailed history and description of the island, its environment, and its other residents. While a true short story at only 25 pages in length, it reads like a novel, and honestly, after finishing it, I felt more like I had just finished a very good book, as opposed to a short story.

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