About halfway through this book I started thinking about Joyce Carol Oates and was interested to see in the interview at the end of my copy that Janet Fitch is a big admirer of Oates (altho who isn't?).
This novel is full of compelling and beautiful prose, lots of philosophical/literary references and is overall quite intelligent. It is an attempt at feminism in a "man's world" (as first noted by Olivia, the beautiful and sophisticated prostitute).
Astrid is different from her mother; she does feel things, she is sympathetic, and she quests for human contact (unlike Ingrid). However, what we see through the course of the book is Astrid turning into Ingrid until the penultimate scene in which Ingrid releases Astrid so that she can return to a more innocent state. Ingrid finds bit of humanity to release Astrid, which is out of character (and contradicts her own: "Sentimentalism is the working off on yourself of feelings you haven't really got." but confirms her love. Ultimately it is this which Astrid has always craved and which allows her to be different from Ingrid. The internal debate as we watch Astrid become Ingrid while striving to be different from her is something recognizable in so many mother/daughter interactions.
I did not like that Astrid was 12 at the beginning of the book with such developed vocab: "I sketched a laughing Carmen lounging under the hanging basket of red geraniums in Sevillian doorway..." and complete understanding of her mother's passion: "her eyes black with it, her hair forever tangled and smelling of musk, Barry's goat scent." Certainly Astrid is very in tune with Ingrid (as we learn later in part because of her early abandonment), but I'm not sure she would be so sexually aware or so verbal at this stage.
I also did not like the repetitive (and decidedly non-feminist) theme of women's reactions to abandonment. Ingrid kills Barry; Starr shoots at Astrid; Claire commits suicide. Ultimately all of these women are so depending on their men that they are unable to function without them. Despite Olivia's apparent freedom, she is the most hackneyed representation of the female servant. Fitch attempts to set Astrid up as independent from men (after all she doesn't really ever fall in love or become dependent on a man), but instead Astrid is enamored with all of these dependent woman. She is somehow less than female, looking up to these flawed women (mother-figures in the end with her suitcases), for clues as to how to become a woman herself: "Woman always put men first. that's how everything got so screwed up."
"What was beauty unless you intended to use it, like a hammer, or a key? It was just something for other people to use and admire, or envy, despise. To nail their dreams onto like a picture hanger on a blank wall." Eventually, Astrid chooses Paul, who admires her beauty, but mostly understands her experiences.
Overall a very interesting, thought provoking, and sad novel.