What Was Mine 2017-04-13T15:33:13+00:00
What Was Mine
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What Was Mine tells the story of Lucy Wakefield—a seemingly ordinary woman who does something extraordinary in a desperate moment: she takes a baby girl from a shopping cart and raises her as her own. It’s a secret she manages to keep for over two decades—from her daughter, the babysitter who helped raise her, family, coworkers, and friends. When Lucy’s now-grown daughter Mia discovers the devastating truth of her origins, she is overwhelmed by confusion and anger and determines not to speak again to the mother who raised her. What follows is a ripple effect that alters the lives of many and challenges our understanding of the very meaning of motherhood.

Helen Klein Ross weaves a powerful story of upheaval and resilience told from the alternating perspectives of Lucy, Mia, Mia’s birth mother, and others intimately involved in the kidnapping. What Was Mine is a compelling tale of motherhood and loss, of grief and hope, and the life-shattering effects of a single, irrevocable moment.

Audiobook Excerpt
Q & A with Helen Klein Ross
This story sprung from a deep-seated fear that my own children would be kidnapped. I raised two daughters in New York City, and when they were little, I’d be shopping, crouched in front of a grocery story shelf, trying decide between brands of soup, and suddenly remember that my kids were behind me. I’d quick turn around and they’d always be there. But what if, one day, they weren’t?

No. But in the years I spent writing it, a number of people sent links to articles in which similar incidents happened in real life. Frankly, I’m grateful I didn’t know how common kidnapping was when my kids were little, or I might have been too afraid to take them out of the house!

What Was Mine isn’t based on facts, but I hope it rings true for readers. For me, fiction has always been the best conduit to discovering truths. The author Bill Roorbach teases friends who teach science that his high school physics book is fiction now, but Anna Karenina is still true.

I felt that this story couldn’t be told by just one character, because no one character could know the whole story. This story doesn’t happen to just one person, even though it’s one person who sets the story in motion. This story is about how a split-second decision can change the course of many lives.

I loved the idea of telling the story in many first person accounts, something for which I felt somewhat trained by the years I spent as a copywriter in advertising. Ads speak in the singular voice of a brand, but a good copywriter writes convincingly in the voice of many brands. My years of exposure to focus groups for products that ran the gamut from fashion to dog food to antacid helped me channel characters as different as a 21 year old college student from Manhattan and a woman in her fifties who lived through China’s cultural revolution.

I don’t have a preconception of how readers should react to the characters. My intention was to create a story that is morally ambiguous and in which the reader might justifiably side with any of the characters. A novel is a collaboration between author and reader. I trust my readers to judge characters for themselves.

This isn’t a morality tale. I didn’t want to make Lucy out to be purely evil, even though she commits a monstrous deed. I didn’t want to make Marilyn out to be purely good, though she would seem to be the more sympathetic character, given her situation. I didn’t want to make things black and white because I don’t think they would have been if this story had happened for real.

Some readers have compared this book to Gone Girl but I see it more as that book in reverse–in Gillian Flynn’s story, a normal woman turns out to be crazy. In What Was Mine, someone we assume is crazy because of what she did, turns out to be normal, or close to normal, whatever that means.

I feel that the ending is a resolution – the resolution being that the dust has settled from the maelstrom created by the discovery of Lucy’s actions and that things are irreparably changed.

The ending is meant to keep readers thinking and talking about what happens next. It’s meant to allow each reader to imagine, in accordance with her own life experience and feelings, what happens when Mia walks out that door.

What Reviewers Say

A compelling and moving story that asks many questions about family, love, and justice… Moving at a hard-to-put-down, breathless pace, this is suspenseful fiction at its best.

Full review

Ross crafts a surprisingly sensitive meditation on the definitions of family and motherhood around a ripped-from-the-tabloids story.

Full review

Ross brings an entirely new twist to the usual abduction story. Fans of Gillian Flynn and Maria Semple will enjoy the intensely introspective What Was Mine.

Full review

Ross’ prose is both readable and enjoyable, and she touches on interesting ideas about identity, family, and the malleability of the human psyche.

Full review

A suspenseful, moving look at twisted maternal love and the limits of forgiveness.

Full article

What Readers Say

How to describe this book? Shattering. Moving. Incredible. Fiction is often times stronger or as strong as non-fiction, and this book read like it had roots in a true crime story. The day Lucy decides, on the spot, to take an infant who does not belong to her, she sets a ball in motion. A ball of lies and deceit. A ball of heartache and destruction. But what she also does is begin a journey, one so genuine it hurts.

For there are times in our lives where we all do something foolish, something that will hurt those around us. We don’t necessarily intend to inflict pain, yet because of our own shortsightedness we simply don’t recognize the dire situations we, on occasion, create. And this is as it was for Lucy Wakefield. Caught up in her own ache of desire as she was, she simply couldn’t allow herself to rationalize what she was doing. Was it wrong? Undoubtedly, a hundred million times over. However, once done, once set into place, how could Lucy ever give back the daughter she had already come to love?
This is a story of loss and betrayal. A story of a criminal act so awful, and yet you still can’t decide whose side of the law to be on. Without hesitation, Lucy is guilty of her heinous crime. So much so that several lives were destroyed in the wake of it. Though within the barriers of her crime she created a loving environment where “her” child never wanted for anything. It’s a fine line, a line between morally wrong and indisputable right. A life she so carefully worked to construct, and then with one wrong move- just like that- the house of cards comes crashing down.

When the past you thought was yours turns out to be a lie and the only life you ever knew begins to come undone like a ball of string, how would you respond? Could you see past the glaring obviousness of the deceit or would your views be forever tainted by the truth? Once the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, Lucy’s “daughter” Mia must live with her mother’s choices and from there decide which path to follow. Nurture or nature? Which is the stronger bond?

This really was an amazing book to read. My heart went out to the characters on both sides. I can not imagine what it would be like to fill any of the shoes these characters wore. I pray to God I never have to. What kind of pure emptiness one must feel to be able to ever do what Lucy did at the beginning of this book. What utter helplessness and torture parents like Marilyn and Tom must feel. Never mind the emotional torture and conflicted emotions the child, no matter how old, caught in the middle must feel. So glad I’m just a reader on the sidelines. Kudos to the author on a well written, thoroughly engaging story.

I was skeptical when a (female) friend lent me a pre-publication edition of this book, with an unusually strong recommendation that “it would immediately catch me up.” She had given me a precis of the plot and I feared the book would veer from chick lit to gothic horror. It was neither. Ms Ross has written a compelling tale, skilfully told in the voices of the half dozen or so characters dramatically impacted by the kidnapping of a four month old infant from an Ikea outlet in New Jersey in the early 90s. The author sneaks you by the most problematic plot point:is it plausible that an upper middle class professional woman in her 30s would steal a baby? As Ms Ross carefully prepares you for that event, and then in a series of flashbacks-you know early on the kidnapper has been caught out-reveals how a heinous crime plays out in the life and mind of Lucy,the child’s kidnapper and now devoted mother,as a divine-like intervention,regrettable (for the natural mother), but also in her psyche inevitable. The driven, compulsive Lucy is center-stage for most of the novel, consumed as she is in raising a bright, accomplished child while concealing her origins from family members, colleagues and nosy beauracrats. We watch Lucy manage in her own words, but more interestingly through the eyes of her sister, her friends and finally her loving child, Mia. The most thoughtful, and at the same time most emotional moments in the book, occur when Mia’s natural mother reclaims her and brings her home to a close second family. Mia’s gradual realization that the nurturing, spiritual Marilyn may be her birth mother but can never replace the indelible memory of Lucy is beautifully drawn. The characters,even secondary ones, are well-realized, the plot moves along briskly and the narratives are taut and disciplined. I have a few quibbles: would have liked to have seen more interaction between Lucy and Mia and a little less of Lucy and her Chinese friends, but these are minor points and did not detract from my thorough enjoyment of this well-crafted work. Read it in one day and part of a night and look forward to the next effort by the imaginative Helen Klein Ross. And, by the way, do we know if the author actually experienced or witnessed a child kidnapping? The account seems almost too real.

What Was Mine is not like any kidnapping story you have read before. Instead of seeing just one side of the story, the chapters are told from different perspectives as different characters tell parts of the story in their own words.

It begins with Lucy, a successful business woman who tried to have a baby for years. Her determined, compulsive, effort to get pregnant drives a wedge between Lucy and her husband until he finally leaves her. On her own, she begins a quest to adopt, but as a single woman she is always rejected. Then one day she sees a beautiful baby girl, left all alone in a shopping cart in an empty aisle of a large store. Without thinking, Lucy picks the child up and walks out. She justifies her act by telling herself the baby’s mother doesn’t love her or she wouldn’t have left her alone in the shopping cart.

But Marilyn, the little girl’s mother, does love her. She got a call from her office and paced while working out the problem on the phone. She’s surprised when she hangs up and realizes she’s walked away from the cart, and completely devastated when she can’t find her baby. In an echo of Lucy’s story, Marilyn’s frantic, compulsive search for her baby destroys her marriage.

The lives of these two women are changed forever by that moment in the aisle of the store, but not as much as the life of Natalie/Mia, the stolen baby. Her chapters begin when she learns the life-shattering truth during her last year of college. For 21 years she was Lucy’s daughter, Mia, an only child. Learning how to be Marilyn’s daughter and half sister to three siblings is a challenge.

Other chapters are told by Ali, Mia’s Chinese nanny, by Lucy’s sister, by Marilyn’s son, by Ali’s son, and by others. Each new character adds another layer to this complex and many faceted story.

What was Mine would be a great choice for a book discussion group. There are so many questions raised. How far would you go to be a mother? What would you do if your child was stolen? If a kidnapper turns out to be a good mother, should she be punished less? What would you do if you discovered your sister had kidnapped a child and lied about it to you for years? Could you forgive her? When a child is raised by a full time nanny, who is the real mother?

If you discovered your whole life was a lie, could you learn to forgive and move on?

I’ve read books that have left me bawling – others I’ve laughed so hard that I was rolling on the floor. Others where I didn’t like the characters at all, but thought the story was brilliant. In this *impossible-story-to-forget*, I felt INTENSE ANGER towards a character more than I can ever remember experiencing.

I can’t say enough high praise for author Helen Klein Ross in the way she wrote this book. (the roller coaster emotions & thoughts she pulled out of us readers).

If there was a voting award category for BEST BOOK CLUB pick for readers to vote, “What Was Mine” would make not only make the list … but could win the grand award.

There are many things I’d like to share in this review – yet almost anything I do, becomes a spoiler.  So….. instead of a normal ‘review’… ( 5 stars from me)…I’ll share one detail: A Baby is Kidnapped and raised by the single woman who took her for 20 years. (but you may have already read that). Oh well! 🙂

As for the rest of this review, I will share directly to a few of the characters.

LUCY: Here is what I have to say to you > what you did from the moment you kidnapped a baby was WRONG… wrong … wrong … ( we all know that)….

However, I didn’t ‘directly FEEL “intense anger” towards you until one morning when you went for a swim when in China. I HATED you when you said “the water made you feel calmer”. I was pissed at you for feeling annoyed that you had to share the public pool with another swimmer. I wanted to kill you in that moment. Oh, I was soooo MAD at you!!!!! And yes…. ( at times), I even felt compassion towards you too. WE CAN THANK Our VERY TALENTED AUTHOR!!!

CHERYL: We need to have a conversation – sister!!! You said something that I will continue to think about long after having read this book. YOU KNOW WHAT YOU SAID… ( we can debate pros and cons later)… let’s not give anything away to our readers, though. ( they can read this themselves). Other readers might debate with later too.

MIA: I’m soooooo sorry sweetheart!!!!

TOM: Do you realize you were somewhat of a turd?? If you have doubts..I’m happy to set you straight!

MARILYN: What can I possibly say? OH MY GOD, my heart broke for you!!!

I was also very moved and inspired of the difference Yoga, meditation and a vegan diet added to your life. Your years of getting support – practicing forgiveness -was realistic and incredible. You became my hero. Thank you..I’m sincerely moved.

MOTHERS … [MOTHER TO MOTHER], CUT IT OUT!!!! Stop comparing who is a better mother by who cooks more – who is a stay at home mother – or a working mother. STOP THE MOTHER WARS! (daughters might take a lesson too).

“What Was Mine”, was more addicting than M&M’s!!!!

What Was Mine: A Novel
About the Characters

Lucy Wakefield left a small town in upstate New York to seek a bigger life in Manhattan. She found a career in advertising and married her college boyfriend, Warren. When they decide to have children, they discover that Lucy can’t get pregnant. Warren doesn’t want to adopt. Lucy doesn’t want to be childless. They separate. But Lucy doesn’t give up her dream of having a baby.

Marilyn Featherstone is a rising sales executive for AT&T in 1990 when she suffers every mother’s worst nightmare—and must figure out how to pick up the pieces of her life and move on.

Tom Featherstone is a partner at a Manhattan law firm whose unflappable wife calls him at the office and tells him—between sobs— that their child is has been kidnapped.

Mia Wakefield is a senior at Middlebury College, who was raised in Manhattan, a product of New York City private school and privilege. One day she discovers that everything she thought she knew about her life is a lie.

Wendy Ma was born in Shanghai and married during China’s Cultural Revolution. She came to the United States in 1988 to build a better life for her husband and son, both of whom she must leave behind.

Cheryl Winterhauser is Lucy’s only sibling, a nurse who lives with her husband and sons in the Victorian house they grew up. Cheryl is happy living a quiet life, never seeking the limelight. Until her sister makes her famous all over town.

Places in the Book

What Was Mine takes place in a fictional world, but some places can be found in the real world, too:

Riverside Park
The park where Lucy takes Mia and learns secrets of New York parenting by listening in on conversations it stretches four miles on the far west side of Manhattan, where Lucy lives. Its park benches, bike paths, playgrounds and tennis courts provide a haven to those raising children in the city. Virtual Tour here.

IKEA – Elizabeth, New Jersey
In 1990, Ikea built its fourth US store (now there are 38) in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on a landfill off a highway near Newark. A few months later, a fifth store opened in Burbank, CA. Ikea’s “Babysitting Ballroom” was a popular draw for shopping parents then, but has been discontinued, although no babies were ever kidnapped from the store, as far as the author knows.

Red Roof Inn
Lucy ghost-writes Baby Drive, the novel that ultimately gives her away, in a Red Roof Inn. There isn’t actually a Red Roof Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but a rating for it exists, guest-posted by Lucy on a website promoting Rick Moody’s new book Hotels of North America.

Some of the novel takes place in China which I have been visiting since 1982. I’ve kept a blog of my most recent trips, here.

I made field trips to little known places, for research purposes. Settings are fun to visit, even if scenes don’t always pan out. For instance, when I was in Shanghai, I made a special trip to Thames Town, about 45 minutes away. I wrote a scene in which Lucy goes there with Lin, to help him practice his English. The town is a replica of an English village built in 2006 to lure city dwellers to the suburbs. It’s deserted, except for hordes of brides and grooms who schlepp out to have their photos taken on the lawn in front of the fake-Gothic cathedral. I scrapped the scene, but I don’t regret visiting the town. Take a look at some of the images to the right.
Research Links

To research this novel, I immersed herself for years in accounts of real kidnapping cases, such as:

For Book Clubs

This reading group guide for What Was Mine includes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and subjects for discussion. Relevant topics include:

“Driven by fears that an aging population could jeopardize China’s economic ascent, the Communist Party leadership ended its decades-old “one child” policy on Thursday, announcing that all married couples would be allowed to have two children.” –New York Times, 10/29/15
“Thousands of wealthy foreign women, mostly Chinese, come to America each year for the express purpose of having babies on U.S. soil.” ­—Wall Street Journal, 11/5/15
“Most modern justice systems focus on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. But a concept called “restorative justice” considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends.” –New York Times, 11/4/13
“When it comes to treating pain and chronic disease, many doctors are turning to treatments like acupuncture and meditation—but using them as part of a larger, integrative approach to health.” –The Atlantic, June 2015