by Jennifer Gilmore
Scribner; 288 p.
There’s plenty of conversation about the adoption crisis in America, but few people can understand just how fraught the process is for prospective parents. Except, that is, for the parents themselves. Usually, they have already exhausted other options, like natural childbirth, which for 7.1 percent or 2.8 million married couples, is impossible. Perhaps the parents have already tried keeping a romance-killing sex calendar, to time things to coincide with the woman’s biological rhythms, and/or drugs and supplements, standing on one’s head after sex to increase the chances that sperm will find and fertilize the egg, and pricier but also not 100% successful measures like in-vitro fertilization. When parents finally decide to adopt, they’ve probably gone through the wringer already.
Jennifer Gilmore’s moving, life-affirming new novel The Mothers starts right at that fateful point in the lives of Jesse and Ramon, two married Brooklyn-based artistic types. Jesse is unable to have children because of an earlier bout with cancer. They both feel okay with that early on in their relationship, until Jesse is in her late 30s and starts noticing and wanting children more. They run through the usual options, then decide on adoption. And that’s where the trouble begins.
Jesse and Ramon visit a fancy adoption agency on the Upper East Side to get the adoption ball rolling. “The chairs lined up perfectly, the metal of each arm touching the next just so, and pristine forms on clipboards were fanned out on tables, which made us feel we needed to be special, chosen even, for entry into this arrangement.” They learn that their timing is not the greatest for international adoption. China’s “one child” policy has hopelessly skewed that country’s boy-girl ratio, making Chinese babies harder to come by, and Russia is just about to ban adoption to America altogether. Worse, Jesse’s having had cancer disqualifies them from adopting from other countries. Still, Jesse and Ramon gamely throw themselves into the process. It’s the enthusiasm (and, often, lack of it) with which they do so that makes them such ultimately such fascinating characters.
Jesse is a strange mix of unreasonableness, steely pragmatism, and earnestness. Early in the novel, at a mixer in North Carolina for couples looking to adopt, she is depicted as unpeeling her name tag and pasting it “over my heart,” a depiction which felt a little precious. However, that would be practically the last sentimental gesture in the book. Jesse rages against the process of adoption, and she doesn’t keep her opinions to herself. Her own parents’ overeager attempts to be supportive annoy her. She judges another couple for specifying that they want to adopt a white child. She makes her father cry. But bearing the real brunt of her ire is Ramon. “’You have to relax,’” he tells her, and she shakes his hands off her shoulders and snaps: “’Seriously? If you tell me to calm down, I might lose my mind.’”
As the novel progresses, the hoops that Jesse and Ramon must jump through get higher and closer together. They make a parent profile for themselves, obsessing over its details (smiles must show teeth, foliage must be evergreen). Friends of theirs become pregnant. One, greedy woman, does twice! Humiliatingly, a member of their immediate family gets pregnant as well. They acquire an 800 number so that pregnant birth mothers can call them and ask personal questions and get their hopes up, but they ultimately choose other families. Without giving away one of the novel’s most horrifying plotlines, these mothers sometimes are not who they claim to be.
The ancillary characters in The Mothers are perfectly drawn, most serving to confound Jesse’s thoughts on what exactly makes a mother. Crystal and Tiffany, seen here as interchangeable blonds, are social workers who guide Jesse and Ramon through the adoption process. They giggle a lot, speak with exclamation points, and tell Jesse about a strange game of favorites the social workers play: “It’s called: Who Would You Want to Adopt You. You know? What couples! … And I chose you guys! Bethany did too. We think you guys would make such awesome parents!” Other characters shine, too. Ramon’s mother is openly hostile to Jesse when they first meet, humiliating her by hanging her underpants out to dry on a line. Jesse’s sister Lucy is a mostly absent presence in the book, living in El Salvador with a boyfriend, surfing, being free.
Gilmore’s first two novels, Golden Country and Something Red, both New York Times notable books, were both well-written and ambitious, but neither connected with me in the same way this book did. Maybe because both of her previous books had such large casts, and both books had so much ground to cover (the immigrant experience, the activist’s experience), so it was difficult to really find the humanness in any one character. That’s not the case with The Mothers. Jesse’s predicament is simple, immediate, and relatable, despite the heartbreak involved. “’Why did she keep telling us it was a girl?’” Jess asks Crystal after yet another birth mother drops unexpectedly out of the picture. “’Everyone wants a little girl,’” Crystal responds sadly. That statement feels incredibly true. And in The Mothers, Gilmore has created a character who, despite her prickliness, makes you feel like she deserves one.