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Damaged childhoods fuel the memoir machine, but Katie Hafner’s Mother Daughter Me (Random House, $26) delivers an unusually graceful story, one that balances honesty and tact. Her account of attempting to care for her aging mother, Helen, to rear her (okay, a little spoiled) teenage daughter, Zoë, and to reconcile herself to a long history of unexpected blows and difficult circumstances begins with all three women moving in to a San Francisco Victorian, where Hafner and Zoë live on the upper floors and Helen gets the basement to herself. Such intergenerational living was once common in America, but today, as Hafner discovers, this arrangement is almost unique statistically, and never mind the backstory: Helen’s quickie divorce from Hafner’s father when Hafner was five; Helen’s rapid descent into alcoholism, which led to child neglect, dangerous living conditions, and unsavory sexual partners (Hafner’s childhood pets were named after her mother’s lovers). When Hafner’s grandfather extracted the ten-year-old Katie and her twelve-year-old sister from their mother’s home and sent them to live with their father, another disaster ensued. Sound depressing? Hafner narrates the events so adeptly that they feel enlightening rather than enervating. The organization of her material neatly replicates the stages of ignorance she passes through: at the beginning, the new house is “a tall Victorian from the late 1800s, yellow with white and gold-leaf trim on a rare flat stretch of Pacific Heights”; but by the end she realizes that “what we ended up with was an expensive walk-in freezer.” So, too, her case against her mother (“When she drank, she grew mean. She would emerge from her bedroom once or twice a day, looking bloated and terrible, to rail about something. Sometimes she was clothed, but often she was not”) is eventually undermined by the discovery that her father had persuaded a judge to revoke alimony, leaving Helen penniless, and that Helen was herself the desperate child of a ruthless, raging mother and a distant father. A central conflict running through Mother Daughter Me — what Hafner calls “a pure distillate, a centrifuged pellet comprising all our struggles” — is over the Steinway grand, which her mother has transported, with some trouble, from San Diego to their new house. Hafner, whose last book was A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, sees the Steinway as the only legacy she wishes to receive in her mother’s will. Helen sees it as a valuable commodity — and sells it. But having finally made peace with her mother and daughter, Hafner lets the piano go — retaining it only as a symbol of what she has gained rather than lost.

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