Book review: Ann Hood's 'The Red Thread,' about Chinese adoption, reviewed by Reeve Lindbergh

By Reeve Lindbergh
Wednesday, May 26, 2010


By Ann Hood


304 pp. $23.95

Five years after the sudden death of her young daughter, Ann Hood published "The Knitting Circle," a novel about the supportive and comforting relationships that formed among a group of grieving women who come together regularly to knit. In the prologue to her new book, "The Red Thread," Hood writes about a belief in China that when a child is born, an "invisible red thread" connects the child's soul to all the people -- past, present and future -- who will play a part in that child's life.

This is the story of Maya Lange, director of the Red Thread Adoption Agency, which places babies from China with families in the United States. Maya lost her own daughter in an accident for which she still blames herself. Shortly after the baby's death, she and her husband divorced, a sadly common occurrence for families that lose a child. Maya rarely speaks about her past, especially not to the potential adoptive couples who seek her help. Yet these people carry their own burdens, and as they meet and become connected to one another through Maya and the adoption agency, their lives are both revealed and complicated by the process.

Hood's red-thread image evokes the sense of a guided journey, perhaps something like the tale of Theseus, who was led safely out of the Minotaur's lair by Ariadne's thread. But the deeper resonance of both "The Knitting Circle" and "The Red Thread" stems from the commonality of human suffering and the potential for healing within a community. The stories bring to mind not Ariadne's thread, but the Buddhist tale of the grieving mother and the mustard seed. In that account, a woman desperately seeking a "cure" for the death of her child is told by Gautama Buddha that she must bring him a handful of mustard seeds from a family in which no one has died. After going from house to house without success, the woman understands that there is no cure for her dead child, and that she is not alone.

"The Red Thread" offers not only Maya's story but also the stories of five potential adoptive couples, among them Maya's close friends Michael and Emily, whose marriage is affected by the presence of Michael's resentful 14-year-old daughter. Nell, a highly accomplished and rather pushy woman, wants a baby more than her husband does. Another couple already has a little girl with a rare form of mental retardation called fragile X syndrome.

Shadowing these stories and Maya's are five others, from Hunan, China. These serve to establish the context in which the Red Thread babies, all girls, become available for adoption. One mother has a daughter at home but must give her new baby girl away. Another's baby girl is taken from her by a family member. A poor, unmarried woman leaves her daughter in the public park with a sweet potato tucked in among the blankets for good luck. One couple plans to keep their baby, but tragedy intervenes.

These Chinese stories are threaded through the book sparingly, in italicized segments, told in a quiet tone that has the familiarity of a folk tale. They give another dimension to the theme of knittings and unravelings within families and societies, of connecting and letting go. While there are implications here that a mother who has lost a baby may adopt one who has lost a mother, or that a little girl might gain a baby sister because another little girl has lost a baby sister, there is no indication that these children were ever unwanted by their biological mothers. On the contrary, cultural conditions have left the Chinese parents little choice, just as unforeseen circumstances have brought the prospective American parents to the point of adoption. Threads and connections notwithstanding, there is ambiguity everywhere.

Ultimately, the babies themselves provide solidity and promise, as babies do, for these families and for this novel. The threads come together, the past is left behind, and all of these lives, however compromised, can begin anew. This is a subtle and unusual adoption story, many-layered, exquisitely told.

Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, most recently, "Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures."

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