Desperate to have a child, the narrator of The Mothers (Scribner, $26), the third novel by Jennifer Gilmore, is in her late thirties and unable to conceive because of an operation that left serious scar tissue. Jesse Weintraub and her husband, Ramon, have instead turned down the fraught path of open adoption. As Jesse attempts to deal with Byzantine agencies, unpredictable birth mothers and the wild surges of her own heart, she ponders the seemingly simple question: what is a mother?
Jesse hopes that Ramon, with his Spanish-Italian heritage, will be able to offer a child his “seventeen languages and countless rich cultural experiences.” But because she is an assimilated Jew, she’s less clear about her own contribution: “My child will be heir to what?” She recalls the rituals of her childhood, like the seder at which “all the cousins, rushing to find the afikomen as if it held the key to something besides Nana Sadie’s checkbook…Three generations dipping our fingers into the salted water…singing Dayenu as if our lives depended on it, my grandfather, the attorney, bent and bird like, his wife, three times larger than he, belting it out, even Great Aunt Sylvia, who was deaf, sang in her low, sad voice.”
At first, Jesse hopes for a Russian child; as the descendant of Eastern European Jews, this makes a kind of emotional sense to her. Later she and Ramon grapple with whether they could accept a child whose mother may have used drugs, or one with mental challenges or physical deformities. Her search leads her back to her family of origin and she is forced to deal with issues in her own childhood—a mother who left often and for long periods because of her work — and her younger sister, from whom she has been estranged and who now turns up at their parents’ home pregnant.
Through Jesse’s eyes, we see the difficult side of the open adoption process, wherein the identity of the parents and the birth mother are known to one another. Rather than uniting Jesse and Ramon, the quest for a child seems to drive them apart. They bicker, they fight, and they turn away from one another, toward others for solace. Jesse shares a brief, unexpected kiss in a parking lot with a lesbian she meets on the adoption trail; she never even tells Ramon about it. But somehow they muddle on.
Gilmore has written, in a very public way, about her own struggles with open adoption, and in this novel, she has tackled a subject that is both painful and all too familiar to her. She carries it off with poise and grace.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is Lilith’s fiction editor. Her fourth novel, A Wedding in Great Neck, appeared in 2012, and the forthcoming novel Two of a Kind will be out in September.