An Ethical Matryoshka: On Daniela Petrova’s “Her Daughter’s Mother”

Randle Browning reviews “Her Mother’s Daughter” by Daniela Petrova.

By Randle BrowningJuly 16, 2019

An Ethical Matryoshka: On Daniela Petrova’s “Her Daughter’s Mother”

Her Daughter’s Mother by Daniela Petrova. G. P. Putnam's Sons. 320 pages.

PART PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, part murder mystery, Daniela Petrova’s ambitious and exhilarating debut novel, Her Daughter’s Mother, grapples with what it means to become a parent in a world with ever-expanding options for growing a family — from fertility treatments to egg donation to surrogacy to adoption. Petrova’s timely new book is a deep dive into the oft-underrepresented world of infertility, pregnancy, and motherhood, including all the medical, legal, and emotional obstacles women face. In this rich narrative territory, Petrova plays on the possibilities of what could go wrong even when all goes according to plan.

The novel’s engaging protagonist, Lana Stone, is a 38-year-old art curator working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and living in New York City’s Upper West Side, desperate to become a mother after nearly a decade of unsuccessful fertility treatments. With jaded humor, Lana captures an experience many struggling with infertility will recognize. “We were members of a club nobody wants to join,” Lana says of her support group, which she unofficially dubs “the Barren Women’s Club.” And Lana has tried everything, even turning to a fertility acupuncturist and a Reiki healer to bolster her chances. She’s left pining after other women’s babies on the subway. Unable to conceive, she sets her sights on pregnancy via egg donation, serendipitously finding a donor in a beautiful 21-year-old Columbia student who shares her Bulgarian heritage. “But this was it for me,” Lana reports. “The two embryos waiting to be transferred into my womb were my last chance at motherhood.”

The night before Lana is scheduled to receive the donor eggs that cost half her salary, Lana’s partner Tyler, a philosophy professor at the university, leaves her unexpectedly and with little explanation, insisting he can’t commit to the transfer. “Tyler hadn’t been happy about spending the last of our savings,” making his walk-out all the more puzzling. Overwhelmed, Lana is faced with an ethical conundrum: move forward with the implantation despite her partner’s wishes, or miss her last chance to carry and give birth to a child? Spoiler: Lana goes through with the egg donation and finally becomes pregnant. Just before the procedure, she concludes:

To hell with Tyler. He could be married with a kid before the end of the year […] Tyler could walk away from me, but he shouldn’t be the one deciding if I’d ever feel the kick of a baby, if I’d ever feel the pain and elation of childbirth.

It was my choice to make.

This move sparks questions around parental rights and makes Lana wonder whose baby she is really carrying. “I had done something unethical and maybe even illegal,” Lana admits. Later, she thinks, “Some might say I’d stolen myself a baby, only I’d done it before it was born.” Further complicating the situation, Lana goes against her judgment and meets her egg donor, who disappears the next day, her face plastered across the local news. A murder investigation and riveting whodunnit ensue.

The clever narrative structure in Her Daughter’s Mother pivots between the first-person points of view of the three parents. Lana, Tyler, and their egg donor, Katya, each narrate their own stories, which grow increasingly layered and intertwined as the plot progresses.

With the relatable Lana, readers are plunged into the excitement and uncertainty of new pregnancy. Yet, it’s darkened by the ethical hurdles unique to a single expectant mother of a child conceived via egg donation. Lana struggles to both understand and move beyond Tyler’s desertion (and avoids telling him he’ll soon be a father), while health scares and an insatiable curiosity about her baby’s heritage interrupt Lana’s work life and put her job in danger.

In an effort to prevent complications around custody, Lana has opted for an anonymous egg donation. “Once the donor knows who you are,” she predicts, “you can never be sure she won’t change her mind one day and come looking for your child.” But after poring over photographs of the captivating Katya, Lana recognizes her on the subway, and curiosity gets the better of the expectant mother. Lana follows Katya for several blocks and helps her up after a fall on the sidewalk. The two end up at a restaurant together, where Lana feels a deep connection to the young student whose genetic material she’s carrying. “The baby inside me was her flesh and blood.” Katya doesn’t make it easy for Lana to correct her slip-up, either. She takes Lana’s number and pressures her into a night out at a Bulgarian club in the city, snapping selfies and brimming with curiosity about their shared heritage. When Katya disappears, Lana fears for her baby’s biological mother. Yet, she realizes she needs to protect herself from the legal implications she faces as the last person to see Katya alive. If Katya has been murdered, as police seem to suspect, Lana’s involvement in her egg donor’s life looks suspect.

Tyler’s narrated sections are fewer, Petrova using them to flesh out his role in the drama and revealing him to be a good-hearted if fumbling academic. “Tyler was a brilliant scholar,” Lana concedes, “but he could be clueless about basic social norms.” Beyond plot reveals, Tyler’s chapters show how the successive blows of Lana’s lost pregnancies have affected him too. “The pain was crushing, debilitating,” he confesses, “but I had to be strong for Lana […] Even if I didn’t believe it.”

When Katya narrates, readers discover a side often completely left out of cultural stories around fertility treatment. What does egg donation mean to the donor, and what might lead someone to offer their eggs to help someone else build a family? For Katya, it’s not just the hefty $10,000 paycheck. Though charming and headstrong, with a litany of lovers and sexual partners in tow, Katya harbors the trauma of losing her three-year-old brother when she was eight, and feels guilt for the part she played in the loss of her mother’s favorite child. For her, the egg donation is a kind of “atonement” or redemption. “It will be painful, as a proper penance should be,” she reasons. “But in the end, I will have made one unlucky couple happy and helped bring a new life to this world.”

Fans of the BBC America drama Killing Eve will appreciate the attraction that plays out between Lana and Katya. Lana has spent eight years consumed with the emotional turmoil of infertility treatments while steadily moving ahead in her dream job. She’s fascinated and enamored with the seductive, manipulative Katya and her free-wheeling lifestyle. “It was something about the way she carried herself […] her eyes — green and sparkling — sweeping the room like she owned it.” In return, Katya admires Lana’s stability and poise, describing her as “my kind of woman: elegant, intelligent, and independent.” Lana is drawn to Katya to learn more about her future child’s genes, while Katya admires Lana as a successful Bulgarian immigrant she can look up to. Yet the maternal tryst becomes even more interesting when the roles seem to reverse. We learn that Katya’s donation may not have been as anonymous as Lana thinks, and are left wondering who is stalking whom. If Katya does know her egg donation led to Lana’s pregnancy, why did she let Lana believe otherwise?

The thrill of voyeurism drives the novel’s manic energy. Lana watches Katya, hoping to learn more about the genes her baby will inherit. “It felt wrong,” Lana admits, “I was not supposed to know my egg donor. I was not supposed to be talking to her. But it was also thrilling.” Katya watches Tyler, even signing up for his class when she learns he’s married to Lana, and catching him in what she sees as a betrayal of Lana and their baby. The intensely observant Katya turns the tables on her therapist, watching him struggle against the boundaries of their counselor-patient relationship. And the novel’s structure makes it feel like even the reader is peeping, catching glimpses of each character’s perspective a little bit at a time.

Her Daughter’s Mother is also about power, and the dynamics that play out as parenthood becomes more complicated than just a biological mother and father in a committed relationship. The traditional power balance is turned on its head at the novel’s outset, with Lana choosing to become pregnant with Tyler’s baby without his consent. In a medical and legal terrain marked by women’s lack of agency, this time, Lana is the decision-maker. Yet, as the expected baby’s biological father, Tyler does have a certain clout, raising legal questions around who can claim parenthood. During a particularly vicious argument, Tyler shouts at Lana: “This baby is more mine than yours. And I will fight you on it if I have to.” As Petrova peels back layers, we see that Tyler was more involved in the baby’s conception than he seems at first.

Despite Lana’s determination and the privilege she enjoys as a woman who can shell out cash to bring her dreams of parenthood within reach, she still falls prey to familiar traps mothers face. With her partner out of the picture, her career suffers, putting her health insurance and financial independence at stake. She’s forced to alter her priorities, rationalizing: “My baby trumped everything. I could find another job, maybe even another partner.” And she carries most of the emotional load of the pregnancy, heading in for frequent doctor’s appointments and upsetting an already unreasonable boss who expects her in the office. Tyler’s attack on Lana’s maternal rights stings, and her legal research reveals that he might hold more sway than she thought. “Tyler was undisputedly the father while I had no genetic connection to the baby and could be seen as nothing more than a gestational carrier.”

Katya is the most complex and surprising character, flitting between victim and aggressor so that it’s impossible to peg her as the martyr or the villain. She quickly reveals herself to be much more than the partying, scantily clad college student she seems. Though her motives are often noble, she’s a skilled manipulator, playing Lana and Tyler against each other. As one of the expected child’s biological parents, she has genetics on her side. Her interest in the baby that will be born of her egg sometimes turns sinister, confirming Lana’s fears about parental rights. Katya even shifts the traditional power balance in her frequent therapy sessions, though Josh is also an ethically questionable character. In one session, she takes pleasure in watching him squirm as she relates a recent hookup in detail: “Poor Josh. He averted his gaze but couldn’t hide his embarrassment. He was picturing me doing it to him. That had been the whole point. I ran my tongue over my upper lip and went on with the story.”

Later, when Josh tries to keep his professional guard up she threatens, “I was the wrong girl to turn down. Josh would pay for it. Sooner or later.” Despite all that, Katya’s a young immigrant woman, alone in New York. She deals with multiple traumas, paying for them with depression, insomnia, and frequent nightmares. This trio of unconventional parents serves Petrova well, allowing her to play up their pathology and raise the stakes for everyone involved.

Petrova is writing in a genre known for its stock characters — readers may at first recognize the woman approaching 40 and desperate to have a baby, the absent-minded professor out of his depth, the fun-loving party girl in over her head. Yet, the author’s plunge into the complicated world of infertility and mixed families shapes old tropes into ripe canvases. The result is a thrilling suspense novel that asks important questions about the way parenthood will evolve in our medical and political landscape. This impressive debut novel is an ethical matryoshka that ups the ante with each plot twist. Despite this weightiness, like the best crime fiction, Her Daughter’s Mother still makes for a page-turning beach read.


Daniela Petrova will be in conversation with Julie Clark at {pages} in Manhattan Beach on July 18 at 7:00 p.m.


Randle Browning is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her book reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in LARB, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Publishers Weekly, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Randle Browning is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her book reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in LARB, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Publishers Weekly, and elsewhere. She holds an MA in English Literature from Boston College. Her website is and she posts on Instagram and Twitter as @randlebrowning.


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