The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir by Jill Kandel is a meditation on family. It’s also a fascinating examination of Jill’s vexing relationship with her Dutch father-in-law, Izaak Kendal. When Izaak chooses euthanasia, legal in the Netherlands, Jill is shaken and unable to process her grief. She turns to research, and it is there she learns horrifying details about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and Izaak’s trauma as a teen. There are no easy resolutions in this honest memoir, but there are plenty of insights.
Jill is 25 when she falls in love with Johan. She is taken by his kindness and charmed by his accent. On a trip to the Netherlands to meet Johan’s parents, Izaak and Jopie, Jill first bumps into her future father-in-law’s unyielding exactness. Jill’s Midwestern friends visit Izaak and Jopie’s house and ask if they can spend the night. It is raining and they have sleeping bags. Jill says yes, but when Johan asks Izaak, he is shocked. He will not have guests sleeping on his floor. The friends are sent to a hostel, and Jill ends the evening in tears. Fourteen years later, Izaak—now a widower—visits Johan and Jill at their home in Fargo, North Dakota. The occasion: Johan is earning his PhD in Agronomy from North Dakota State University. Jill is barely hanging on. She has been working as a nurse, homeschooling their children, and is pregnant, but she decides to iron the shirt Johan will wear to his thesis defense anyway. Izaak walks in, notes an imperfectly ironed shirt, and tells her, “This is not acceptable.”
In that moment, Jill is ready to give up on Izaak. “What a fool I’ve been. All this caring. All this wanting to please. No more.” But relationships are funny things. Jill and Izaak might not understand each other, but threads of love and loyalty hold them together. When Jill and her family next visit the Netherlands, she still strives to live within Izaak’s exacting schedule, and Izaak still buys the pastries Jill loves and holds them out to her, entreating her to take one.
Jill and Izaak might not understand each other, but threads of love and loyalty hold them together.
The Clean Daughter is organized into nine parts. Within each part are titled vignettes that work like blocks within a quilt. Jill’s prose shifts fluidly between past and present verb tenses, between scene and reflection. The book follows Jill and Johan as they live in Zambia, England, Indonesia (“My body was made to live here, unashamed, relaxed, at ease with the world around me”), and the United States. Throughout, Jill weaves in research. She begins with snippets of Izaak’s past, and expands into a detailed history of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, the crushing occupation that followed, and a liberation that was slow to arrive.
Jill’s research is prompted by Izaak’s decision to die by euthanasia at 85, a choice she cannot accept because, as she tells a friend, “Izaak was mostly healthy. Still living on his own, cooking, going to concerts, driving.” Jill cannot understand why he would hurt his family. She contrasts Izaak’s death to that of her father. “My father’s death feels sad, but natural, normal, ordinary in the sense that we all die . . . Izaak’s death—even though I’ve had a year longer to deal with it—still feels mistaken or incorrect, somehow unfinished.” Jill argues that euthanasia robs people of a good death, a death that invites others to care for you and in which you must relinquish control.
Izaak’s death still feels mistaken or incorrect, somehow unfinished.
Through her research, Jill learns what has broken Izaak and her understanding of him deepens. Her feelings toward euthanasia, however, do not shift. She is initially uncertain about placing Izaak’s euthanasia on the page. She wonders if it is her story to tell and how her critique of mercy killing will be received. She responds, finally, with honesty, not only about Izaak, but also about herself.
The title of Jill’s memoir, The Clean Daughter, is a literal translation of schoondochter, Dutch for daughter-in-law. Because Jill is not fastidious, she is amused by the term. The memoir’s title acts as a sly observation of the awkward translations that can emerge between cultures. It is also, however, a declaration of identity. While both of Johan’s parents have died and Jill is no longer anyone’s schoondochter, she is forever shaped by having been one. She is someone who knew and loved Izaak.
The Clean Daughter is a beautifully written memoir with an innovative structure and a fascinating subject. Jill Kandel’s warmth, insightfulness, and keen insights make this memoir unforgettable.