The Laws of Gravity
Liz Rosenberg discusses the inspiration behind her heartbreaking tale of family drama and the ethical questions that haunted her.
In her latest novel, award-winning author Liz Rosenberg weaves an emotional story about family and ethics that pivots around an intense legal battle between two cousins fighting for rights to cord blood needed for a life-saving medical treatment. When Nicole, red-haired and beautiful, discovers she is gravely ill, she turns to her cousin and childhood best friend, Ari, for the cord blood he’s been banking for his own children. Ari’s decision brings the two before the scales of justice as the case escalates to the New York Supreme Court and lands on the desk of Judge Solomon Richter. Richter, a state supreme court judge on the brink of mandatory retirement, finds himself embroiled in a legal battle unlike any other. The case calls into question the very things we live for: family, loyalty, friendship, and love. It’s Nicole’s last chance, Ari’s last stand, and Solomon’s last case.
I read that the idea for this book came to you after reading an article about a cousin who sues another cousin for a medical transplant? What was it about that particular story that grabbed your attention enough to inspire this book?
Yes, the seed for this idea came from a newspaper article about a similar case in Pennsylvania, where one dying cousin sued his cousin, who had agreed to donate bone marrow and then reneged on the promise. The case ended up in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. I was lucky enough to find a long-term friend and helper in the judge who decided that case. I was immediately gripped by this kind of inter-family struggle. What would happen at family holidays? How would the widow speak to her late husband’s cousin? Where do loyalties fall within families? And then, too, I have always been fascinated by the workings of the law. Can justice compel us to do the right thing? What are the limits of the law, of justice?
Having thought through all the different aspects of this moral crisis for so long, what do you think you would do if a close friend and/or relative requested your child’s cord blood?
I hope I would choose to help the dying friend or relation. I hope I’d have that kind of strength and faith. But you know, I am a very fierce Jewish mother. I understand very well what it means to want to protect your own children from harm. I was drawn to this story partly because I understand Ari’s side of the story. If the choice had been easy, it wouldn’t have appealed to me as literature. As a fiction writer, you are looking to create maximum tension. It’s the judge’s last case – he’s hit the age of mandatory retirement. It’s Ari’s last stand as a father, he’s protecting his kids. And it’s Nicole’s last chance at survival.
You chose to set this story on Long Island. What was it about that community that made you choose this setting?
Setting the story on Long Island was a big piece of how I found my way. Eudora Welty says, “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting … gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress.” I was born and raised on Long Island. To me, the complexities and snarls and familial interlocking of the story belong to a place like Long Island. Traffic, for instance, is a central metaphor in the book. I’ve always felt suburbia has been maligned and misunderstood by those who have never lived there. It’s every bit as alive and electric as anywhere else – just as beautiful and ugly, as cruel and kind, just as scary. So this book is my hymn to Long Island, and it felt like the right place to tell a story about a family imploding – but also about what holds fast.
What was the most daunting aspect of writing this book for you – emotionally and also practically?
The most daunting part of writing The Laws of Gravity was living inside the sad parts. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” There were plenty of tears in this writer. And I hate to write sad books – I want, as L.M. Montgomery once said, “to be an emissary of light.” So I made sure to put in some comedy and sufficient brightness to make the sadness bearable. I even created a stand-up comic as a central character to combat the darker elements of the novel. I like to read books that make me laugh and cry. So that is the kind of book I try to write.
The judge, Solomon Richter, is faced with the dark question of whether one is legally obligated to be moral. It seems this doesn’t really have legal standing. Have you thought about Judaism’s role/rules in this case?
I thought a lot about Judaism’s role in relation to the question of justice, of our obligations to one another; I brought that in specifically in the judge’s own thinking, and things that other characters say and do. The judge’s wife is an adult bat mitzvah, and she speaks to this issue of family, law, and obligation in her parsha. It’s a very deliberately and specifically Jewish book. Making nearly the whole cast of characters Jewish was another way I found my own way in and through the story. My son jokes that you can squeeze any corner of any page and a drop of Manischewitz will come out. Family is so central to Judaism. So is behaving ethically. So is the mandate of law. But then, I have an Italian Catholic neighbor character talking about his responsibility to others, a young Muslim woman in prison does too. All faiths grapple with the question, “What do we owe to one another?” The heart of Judaism, it seems to me, tells us that we serve G-d best when we serve our fellow human beings.
What question would you like to be asked about your book that hasn’t been asked yet and how would you answer it?
The question I’d like to be asked is, “How would you feel about Dustin Hoffman playing the judge, Solomon Richter, in the blockbuster movie we will start shooting next fall?” (The answer is, Sounds great! Perfect!) In the absence of THAT question – let’s see, I was talking to a group of students recently about why I write. Books have been for me a lifelong saving grace. Often I have felt lost in a swamp, and books are like footsteps, they reveal that someone else has been here before – sometimes they even help show a way out. I find that almost everything I write, from children’s books to poetry to novels to non-fiction, ends up being about family. I’m not sure why. My favorite character in The Laws of Gravity, Judge Richter, calls family “the last remaining savage tribe.”
About the Author
Rosenberg has written more than 30 prize-winning books for adults and young readers. For the past 20 years, she has been a book review columnist at the Boston Globe, and she is a 2014 Fulbright Fellow in Belfast, Ireland. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Rosenberg is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she won the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her first husband was the late novelist John Gardner, author of Grendel (Knopf, 1971) and On Becoming a Novelist (Harper & Row, 1983). Originally from Long Island, where The Laws of Gravity is set, she currently splits her time between upstate New York and Florida.
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