The child they chose to make their own

Adoption as seen through the eyes of a fictitious New Yorker and a collection of real adoptive parents.

Many, many books have been written about adoption over the years, forming a veritable genre of their own; but these are usually memoirs. Given such a bumper crop of personal experiences, I wondered: Why would anyone want to write a novel about adoption? But after reading Judy Sheehan's perceptive, moving, and often comic And Baby Makes Two, I dropped my skepticism.

Sheehan is a gifted writer who manages to juggle a panoply of characters with style, skill and, above all, wit. Her lead character, Jane Howe, is a single, professional, 37-year-old Manhattanite who - surprise! - awakens to the gnawing sense that what is missing in her life is a baby.

Eventually, she decides to go to China to adopt a little girl. But it's not quite a conversion experience. Sheehan - who actually did adopt from China - is most wonderful when she is plumbing the depths of Jane's self-doubts, which are magnified at times by the very people upon whom she is depending for support and affirmation. (Her stalwart Irish-Catholic father's mantra: You will ruin your life.)

Despite Jane's inner turmoil, her compass never wavers from the East for long. Through it all she manages to act as a heroic maestro conducting an orchestra of eccentrics, the most memorable of whom is Ray, her loyal friend, who also dreams, however wistfully, of parenthood, but has doubts about his suitability when the plastic cactus he's been "caring for" melts on the radiator.

Sheehan's deft handling of the raw emotions of a phalanx of adoptive-mothers-to-be has a power which comes to a crescendo when Jane receives the long-awaited phone call with her referral.

It's a heartbreaking moment, made more poignant when Jane, hearing that her little girl's surname is Hao, manages, through her tears, to peep, "My name is Howe too."

But whenever Jane is in danger of becoming too needy, Sheehan lightens the mood of her character in a way that shows the reader what a tough bird this woman really is.

There are fleeting missteps in this novel, such Sheehan's occasional, unnecessary shifts in the story's point of view, as well as her unexpected exits from the narrative to address the reader as "you." And although the reader would like to know how things turned out with mother and daughter in the long run, the author's epilogue, from Jane's daughter's point of view, several years postadoption, is an indulgence that rings a bit too cute.

Despite these hiccups, "And Baby Makes Two," replete with intrigue, delicious little surprises, and high emotion, kept me turning the pages. Sheehan is a smart writer who knows exactly what her audience needs, and delivers it wholesale.

On the nonfiction side, in A Love Like No Other, editors Pamela Kruger and Jill Smolowe offer a sharp new collection of essays on adoption. The book begins with a quote from author Jacquelyn Mitchard who writes "This is an adoption nation, in a way. If it weren't for adoption in the citizenship sense, there would be no United States as we know it."

It's a powerful point, and provides a ready invitation to delve into one of the most thoughtful books on adoption to come along in years.

All of the contributors to this superbly edited volume are professional writers who have adopted (or, in one case, come close to doing so). Their practice in the careful use of language is brought to bear upon an area that demands it: how people choose to constitute their families.

Here you'll find every variation on this theme: traditional husband/wife couples, singles, and gay and lesbian singles and partnerships. All have written with blunt honesty about how they came to adopt their children and the challenges they faced both during the process and after they had brought their kids home.

Take this passage by Antoinette Martin, whose husband divorced her not long after the adoption of their second child: "I found it nearly unbearable that my husband's [new] girlfriend could now be in loco parentis to my children, when they were merely postmarital baggage to her."

Adoptive parents have ample opportunities to be angry - or at least irritated - about the way their children are perceived, and sometimes taunted, by "outsiders," especially if they are of a different race or have special needs.

In this light, these essays are notable for their lack of stridency, which is not to say that the authors do not make their points with vigor. Former Boston Globe reporter Adam Pertman writes, "We live in a world ... in which the words 'you're adopted' are still commonly wielded as an insult or invoked to conjure a distasteful stereotype."

There is likewise a pervasive humility about these pieces. Jana Wolff, who together with her husband adopted a boy named Ari, admits, "The more I know about adoption, the less of a know-it-all I become."

All of these essays strike the same vein: Rather than being prescriptive or cautionary, they are invitations to the reader to participate in the larger conversation about who we are as family.

"A Love Like No Other" contains some gorgeous writing, deeply felt and strikingly expressed. Its reflections on the joys, complexities, and occasional heartbreak of the parent-adoptive child relationship hold value for anyone, whatever the context or constitution of their families.

Robert Klose is the father of two adopted sons and the author of 'Adopting Alyosha.'

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