Tag Archives: parenthood

The Book Of My Life

our-short-history

Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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God Bless the Child

Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman (Harper; $14.99; 304 pages)

“…an engaging and engrossing novel…  counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.”

If you had asked me a few weeks or months ago if I’d be interested in reading a novel about adoptions I suppose I would have replied in the negative.   However, debut author Chandra Hoffman’s novel Chosen has the benefit of being set in Portland, Oregon which tipped the scales in favor of placing it on my to-be-read list.   It is, all in all, an engaging and engrossing novel; however, the pluses are counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.

This is primarily the story of Chloe Pinter, the director of Portland’s Chosen Child domestic adoption program.   Although Chosen Child is a fictional program (charging prospective adoption parents tens of thousands of dollars in fees), Hoffman worked as an orphanage relief worker in Eastern Europe, and so she knows of what she writes here.   Chloe is a young, ambitious woman engaged to a restless young daredevil who makes no money, and who is content to delay their marriage as long as possible.   As we meet her, Chloe has convinced herself – perhaps falsely – that she loves nothing more than combining otherwise abandoned children with couples for whom adoption is a last chance at parenthood.

All those adoptions where she believed she was creating a family, playing the puppeteer, chosing the right parents for this baby, or the perfect baby for the best couple.

The interest and tension in this story builds as Chloe must deal with flawed human beings, birth parents who decide to give up a child and then change their minds, and prospective adoptive parents who feel like their lives will be over if the planned adoption does not go through.   All of the parties involved express their frustrations to Chloe, who soon realizes that she – like her boyfriend – would rather be in Hawaii, or anywhere else where she would not have to deal with other people’s problems.

One of the unfortunate issues with this read is that Hoffman populates the story with a few too many characters for the reader to follow.   Unless you take notes as you’re reading, you may become confused as to who is who, especially as the characters include not only adoptive and birth parents, but also a couple that considered adoption before having their own child through natural means.

A more significant issue arises when Hoffman is compared (as on the back of the book cover) to writer Chris Bohjalian.   I attempted to read Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Night Strangers, but had to give up in frustration.   Bohjalian writes well but tends to insert sex scenes that seem to come from off of the stage – without context or introduction – and that are ultimately distracting.   They do nothing to advance the story being told.   Hoffman does the same here; all of the sex-related scenes could have been edited out without doing any harm to the tale.   And like Bohjalian, Hoffman writes comfortably about prosperous people – in this case, Volvo station wagon driving couples living in Portland Heights – but fails to be convincing when she writes about the gritty folks who live on the wrong side of town.   Part of this may be due to the locale she selected, as Chloe admits that while there are tougher parts of Portland, there are no truly dangerous sections in the greater city area.

To restate this, the harsh and adult content which is a key part of Chosen does not seem to come naturally to Hoffman.   Tough language and rough situations sometimes seem jarringly out-of-place in this story and require a suspension of belief that may be beyond the capacity of some readers.   As an example, when Chloe is threatened by some rough characters, she never has the street smarts to alert the local police, which would seem unlikely in a protagonist as seemingly intelligent as Chloe Pinter.

It is so much easier when, after the parents have signed, everyone simply retreats back to their corners, disappears.   The adoptive parents into the all consuming babyland, the birth parents drifting on, carrying their grief with them like battered travel trunks.

To Hoffman’s credit, she crafts a very satisfying conclusion to this tale, one in which we find that the bad actors are not quite as bad as they seem.   The ending may redeem any flaws that precede it for a majority of readers.   Personally, I view Hoffman as a new author with great potential who would benefit from developing a writing style that discourages comparisons with Chris Bohjalian or Jodi Picoult.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “…(An) unflinching and suspense-filled account of the pleasures and perils of domestic adoption.”   Los Angeles Times

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