Jennifer Gilmore's 'The Mothers': An honest adoption novel
Jennifer Gilmore's 'The Mothers' is a refreshingly frank portrayal of adoptive parents. Bypassing an adoption memoir of her own, she's able to treat a fictional couple much harder, and with more honesty, than she'd show herself.
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Adoption is hard to write about. That may sound odd, considering how many novels involve an adoption premise – from "Bleak House" to Harry Potter and every other heroic orphan in a children’s series. Then there are the boatloads of recent memoirs, many written by adoptive parents going to China, Russia, or fill-in-the-blank.
But books about adoption, be they gung-ho celebrations or harrowing tales of woe, tend to gloss the truth. Not because authors are deliberately self-serving, but because they can’t rein in their own biases. Adoptive parents, birthparents, and adoptees have very different perspectives, which means most personal accounts of adoption only offer one slice of a big and messy pie.
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Jennifer Gilmore’s new novel, "The Mothers," is a surprising exception. She doesn’t attempt to encompass every point of view. Yet, with scalpel-like precision, Ms. Gilmore takes apart the standard adoptive-parent narrative.
Despite the title, her 2013 novel is not focused on what birthmothers want, and that’s a good thing. There are no guilty adoptive-mom fantasies of poor women giving up their babies for a better life. Instead, almost-40-year-old narrator Jesse obsesses that the “birthmother, that most fragile bird, might fly away.”
In their quest for a baby in a domestic open adoption, Jesse and her husband Ramon care about “the mother” (and the shadowy birthfather who might nix the adoption) mainly as a means to an end. Jesse admits to herself that she’d just like to throw money at the problem, that she’s sick of writing “Dear Birthmother” letters about how much she loves to bake pies. At one point, she bristles:
“Am I allowed to ask where I fit in here? There is a woman who gives birth and that is not I. And then she is in our lives – Ramon’s and mine, ours, whatever that life will look like – however she chooses to be. I accept that, but … when do I get to be the mother?”
And yet, Jesse and Ramon are likable. They’re flawed in the ways many good parents are. What I admire most about this novel is its truthfulness about their inner lives.
In broad strokes, my husband and I experienced much of what these two have already soldiered through by the beginning of "The Mothers": miscarriage, hormone shots, failed IVF treatments, fraught discussions about what kind of adoption to pursue. In our case, we opted for international adoption, partly – as Gilmore makes clear – because that was easier a decade ago.
Regardless, Jesse and Ramon’s travails are familiar to me. But that’s not why I like "The Mothers." In fact, I was prepared to not like it, and I don’t love the “docu-novel” (from the Kirkus review) aspect of Part 1. Close to a hundred pages, more than a third of the book, is spent on the couple traveling to and sitting through a weekend adoption training session in North Carolina.