Off the Shelf | Novels peel back emotional layers of yearning for a child

The Bible contains numerous accounts of women unable to give birth, including three of the Torah’s four matriarchs — all of whom do eventually become pregnant following divine intervention. What I find striking is how the texts acknowledge not only the medical fact of infertility, but also the depth of emotion — sadness, jealousy, inadequacy, hope and bitterness — that can accompany it.

I recall these stories when I think about people in my own life — disproportionately Jewish women — who, due to a variety of factors, have endured great trials to become parents. For some, these efforts have yielded fruit; for others, they have left only a trail of bitter memory and financial debt. The truth is that I don’t know much about the experiences, even of my good friends. I rarely have felt comfortable asking, guessing at the storehouse of pain that lies beneath the surface.

This sober reflection is meant to bring us to two recent novels chronicling difficult quests for children.

For those who have read her popular novels “Golden Country” and “Something Red,” Jennifer Gilmore’s new book, “The Mothers,” will come as a bit of a surprise. Whereas both of the earlier novels were set against the grand sweep of 20th-century American Jewish history, “The Mothers” is an intimate and inward-looking account of one couple’s struggle to become parents in the present day.

The book’s narrator is Jesse Weintraub, a Jewish, Brooklyn-dwelling professor of women’s studies who is approaching the 40-year mark. After a series of failed fertility treatments, she and her Italian-Spanish husband, Ramon Aragon, have chosen to adopt. The couple is blissfully unaware of how many obstacles and traumas they will face.

For anybody who has not been through this process — and especially in recent years, with the dramatic reduction of options for international adoption — the book is an eye-opener simply for its presentation of the daunting and often heartbreaking ordeal of attempting to adopt a child.

But the novel is foremost an entry into Jesse’s emotional life as she endures a hellish experience of disappointment after disappointment. Blessed by a biting sense of humor, she is forthright with her feelings, as when discussing her resentment of her friends who now congregate to share parenting anecdotes; the insecurity she feels as she and Ramon are judged by social workers and the biological mothers of the prospective children; her fear that her Jewishness will make those biological mothers less likely to entrust her with their children’s upbringing; and the haunting question of whether she can ever truly feel like a child’s mother when the biological mother exists.

This last concern relates to the book’s more philosophical inquiry into the nature of motherhood. When Jesse asks, “What is a mother?” it is clear from the many mothers appearing in the book that there is no satisfying answer. In fact, Jesse’s own life is a case in point, as she considers herself to have been brought up chiefly by the family housekeeper while her mother frequently was away working. And with all the attention to motherhood, there is also the question, introduced by an increasingly frustrated Ramon, of where fatherhood fits in.

In Michael Lowenthal’s “The Paternity Test,” narrator Pat Faunce and his partner, pilot Stu Nadler, have just relocated from New York to a cottage on Cape Cod. They decide to have a child, albeit for different reasons — Pat seems to be motivated, if subconsciously, by the hope that having a larger family will keep Stu, who has not adjusted well to monogamy, at home. And Stu wants his father, a Holocaust survivor, to have a grandchild.

The couple’s laborious search for a surrogate mother (complicated by Stu’s desire that the woman be Jewish) seems to end when they receive a response from Debora, a Brazilian woman descended from Portuguese Crypto-Jews. But, alas, nothing is easy — including the hurdle of getting pregnant — and their struggle is just beginning.

The two novels have much in common. Although both concern efforts to have a baby, what they perhaps end up illuminating most is the messiness of relationships, both chosen and familial. This is particularly true of “The Paternity Test,” in which virtually every character will hurt somebody else with an ill-conceived act or remark — some with profound consequences.

What Gilmore and Lowenthal each accomplish is the realization of unreliable narrators who are intelligent but often limited in their self-awareness. Particularly as their predicaments become more desperate and the tension with their partners escalates, we become conscious of how all of the information is filtered through Pat’s and Jesse’s perspectives, and how they often fail to recognize the flaws in their own thinking and behavior.

Both books are page-turners. Though you may not always love the characters, you’ll likely want to stick by them. But it will be a bumpy ride. n

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.


“The Mothers” by Jennifer Gilmore (288 pages, Scribner, $26)


“The Paternity Test” by Michael Lowenthal (288 pages, University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.