A Tale of Two Mothers

The Florist’s Daughter
Patricia Hampl
Harcourt, $24, 240 pp.

Swimming in a Sea of Death
A Son’s Memoir
David Rieff

Simon & Schuster, $21, 192 pp.


Two deaths, two mothers, two books: two noted authors write of their mothers’ deaths. The contrast between the authors, as between the mothers, could hardly be sharper.

Patricia Hampl—poet, memoirist, and the florist’s daughter—forever resident in her native St. Paul, Minnesota, tells the story of Mary Catherine Ann Teresa Eleanor Marum Hampl, wife, mother, librarian.

David Rieff—journalist, social critic, world traveler, and son of two intellectuals—tells the story of Susan Sontag, literary star, advocate, provocateur, lesbian, and mother. One author is a believer, the other an atheist. One story is embedded in a community, one in solitary struggle. One death is a part of life, one an affront to life.

The Florist’s Daughter has its beginnings in a familiar Catholic story, the mixed marriage. Her parents’ Czech-Irish union brought with it the ethnic and class stereotypes that...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.