Years ago, I had a writing teacher in college who responded to every paper the same way. “Enjoyed this essay about your cocker spaniel,” she would write at the top, “but I’d like to see the story told from his point of view.” Or, “Excellent screenplay! Now I’m wondering if you could try it as a poem.” Her aim was to open up new territory and truth by reconstructing our writing. Typically, step No. 3 would be to bring the piece back to its original form, incorporating the things we’d learned.
I imagine Jennifer Gilmore — who teaches writing at Princeton — giving herself a similar assignment. After surviving an endlessly nasty, hope-killing adoption experience and writing many astonishing essays about it, she wants to see whether this material works as a novel.
I’m here to say, it definitely works.
Yet “The Mothers” retains certain aspects of nonfiction. There’s an interiority to it, a desultory listing of facts whether or not they move the plot, a tenacious focus on sequence rather than action. Lovely as it is, the novel feels like a memoir — a memoir in which random, arbitrary details have been changed.
The story revolves around a couple, Jesse and Ramon (doppelgangers for the real-life Jennifer and Pedro), feverishly shopping for a baby before it’s too late. Jesse, a New York-based writing teacher, is fast approaching 40. She’s a cancer survivor who is desperate to be a mother but cannot carry a baby, probably because of the treatments that saved her life.
She and Ramon enter the labyrinth of the “open adoption” system — that barbaric popularity contest in which vulnerable women choose adoptive couples like lottery winners. The process is unfair, random, fickle, de-humanizing.
And then it gets worse. Jesse — whose history of cancer disqualifies her from international adoption — becomes a grasping manipulator. At an adoption “training” session in which prospective parents are asked to choose pompoms that represent the colors of the people in their lives, Jesse leans past Ramon and grabs all the pompoms, piling them in front of her like a child. Later Ramon points out that he would have liked to participate. Also — and this is the knife blade — he notes that Jesse grossly overestimated their number of black friends.
Jesse resents her mother for conceiving easily, then leaving her children to be raised by the help. Jesse resents her pregnant friends and the women she meets who have been successful adopting overseas. She vacillates wildly between sniping at her mostly passive husband and grieving guiltily that she cannot give him the child he deserves.
Ramon, for his part, retreats, plays video games and drinks copious amounts of beer. Theirs is a brutal but believable story, a 15-month ordeal from which there appears to be no escape.
Then the birth mothers parade through, each more scheming and evil than the last. One of Gilmore’s essays (a New York Times piece from 2011 titled “My Bridge to Nowhere”) is included here nearly verbatim: a vignette in which a probably not-even-pregnant woman arranges to meet Jesse at a restaurant in New Jersey, scams a meal and some exotic lotions from the couple, and then wanders off into the adjoining mall. In “The Mothers,” this becomes just one more chapter in the gray purgatory that is Jesse and Ramon’s quest.
For all this pain, though, “The Mothers” is surprisingly easy to read, clipping from one obstacle to another with humor and insight. Jesse grows wiser as she draws ever closer to her dreaded 40th birthday. It’s impossible not to root for her as she picks herself up over and over, answering the phone in the hope that her new or future baby is on the other end.
And throughout it all runs Jesse’s refrain, a mantra about mothers, the choices and deals we make: Would she choose any of her friends to be the birth mother of her child? What about the ones who were sloppy about early pregnancy, drinking a second or third glass of wine? Moreover, had things turned out differently, had Jesse been able to get pregnant, would she herself have been good enough?
Gilmore adopted a baby boy this year, long after “The Mothers” was complete. And this bit of joyous reality will undoubtedly become part of the novel’s lore. There’s a part of me — the writing teacher — that wants to tell Gilmore, “Now, go back and write the whole thing as a memoir.”
Some day, I’m betting that’s exactly what she’ll do.
Bauer is the author, most recently, of “The Forever Marriage,” a novel coming out in paperback next month.
By Jennifer Gilmore
Scribner. 277 pp. $26