The Paternity Test
In this unconventional family saga, Michael Lowenthal explores the question of who “counts” as being Jewish.
Having a baby to save a marriage – it’s the oldest of clichés. But what if the marriage at risk is a gay one, and having a baby involves a surrogate mother? Pat Faunce is a faltering romantic, a former poetry major who now writes textbooks. A decade into his relationship with Stu, an airline pilot from a fraught Jewish family, he fears he’s losing Stu to other men. Yearning for a baby and deeper commitment, Pat pressures Stu to move from Manhattan to Cape Cod, and the pair end up enlisting a charismatic Brazilian immigrant named Debora to be their surrogate. But as Pat and Debora start bonding, questions aboutloyalties arise, leaving Pat wondering if he’s ready to be a father after all.
Stu and Pat were looking for a Jewish woman as a surrogate mom so the baby would be “officially” Jewish. They end up hiring a surrogate from Brazil who is Jewish, but who grew up practicing Catholicism. Why did you choose to bring in this complication?
I’ve always been interested in the question of who “counts” as being Jewish, and who gets to decide that question – which strikes me as an example of a more general phenomenon in society. For example: Who “counts” as being married or being considered a family, and who gets to decide that, and why is it so desperately important for some people to feel in charge of these distinctions? So I thought the storyline about Debora’s Marrano heritage was another way of underscoring the thematic questions posed by the main plot, which are in many ways about the notion of lineage.
I suppose there’s a political element, too. Who is a more “worthy” Jew: the person born of Jewish parents who never attends synagogue or observes any holidays, or the person raised in another faith who, as an adult, chooses to convert to Judaism? To me, this is parallel to the question of who is a more “worthy” father: the heterosexual man who just happens to impregnate his sexual partner, or the gay man who decides to have a child and then goes through all the logistically and financially taxing steps to bring his plan to fruition? I personally don’t think these “Who is more?” competitions are helpful or even morally valid, but in many ways they still form the basis of many of our cultural and legal systems.
I read in one of your prior interviews that you are interested in exploring whether sex can ever truly not have consequences. What is your answer to date and why?
For me, the pleasure in writing novels is in posing questions, not answering them, so I don’t think I can say I have an answer. My guess is that there are some people who should try to think of sex as being more consequential, and others who should try to think of it as being less so. I’m all for people being honest, for example, about the fact that non-monogamous relationships can be just as committed as monogamous relationships – and often more so. But I’d also be interested to hear more candid talk about how the choice to have sex with many different people in many different relational contexts does have various effects, even if those effects are not necessarily what we all used to be warned against (wrecked lives, eternal damnation, etc.).
How did you get into the mindset of the surrogate’s husband? He seems to be this total outsider in this group in spite of the fact that he’s the only one without a problem to solve.
To be honest, I don’t know if I got into his mindset enough. In another lifetime, I might rewrite the novel from his point of view because, as you point out, he’s the one person in the surrogacy arrangement who doesn’t necessarily have his own agenda, and that makes him especially interesting to me. Why would a husband support his wife’s choice to be a surrogate for two strangers? What does this say about the strengths or weaknesses of their marriage? So the way I got into his mindset, I guess, was by inventing his agenda, which involved discovering his history and, within it, the emotional reasons that would make his choices plausible. Same as with any other character, really.
Why is it so important for Stu that the baby is biologically Jewish?
I don’t know – which is, I guess, why I wrote the story that way. It seems to me that most parents’ choices about having children are partly rational and partly irrational. I’m especially intrigued by the primal, tribal, gut-level feelings that guide people, and by the ways people try to pretend that those feelings actually follow rational logic. I’ve wondered – in what I hope doesn’t seem too unkind a way – what would happen if, say, two infants were switched in a hospital or adoption agency, and parents who insisted on having a biologically Jewish child took home one who wasn’t. And what if those parents never found out about the switcheroo? What, if any, would be the consequences? (To me, this question is a lot deeper than “If a tree falls in the forest…”) It seems obvious to me that on a literal level, there could be few if any significant differences. And yet countless millions of parents feel there would be a catastrophic difference. Why? What is that feeling about, if it’s not about (as I don’t think it can be about) literal biology?
There are so many conflicting themes and questions in this book around “what makes a family.” Which questions interested you most in writing it?
I think I mostly answered this in response to your first question. But… does biology trump love, or vice versa? Is your family what allows you to become yourself, or what keeps you from becoming (entirely) yourself? Family is one big unanswerable question, isn’t it?
I love Pat’s line in the book, “We had all decided upon the same way to be different.” Does this line have personal relevance for you, and how?
Thanks for appreciating this line. This is one of the places in the novel where Pat’s views and my own are quite in sync. I’ve always been skeptical of any type of orthodoxy, and it came as something of a shock to me when I realized that gay culture – which I had seen as liberating because of its subversiveness – could impose its own kind of orthodoxy. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Every group or movement, even (especially?) if it’s born in opposition to a dominant or mainstream culture, ends up having its own groupthink, its own “correct” way of being. The key, I think, is to be as skeptical toward your own people as you are toward the people against whom you define yourself – although this risks leaving you alienated from everyone, at home nowhere. Sometimes I’m deeply jealous of joiners and believers.
Early in the book, there is talk of the cliché belief of thinking that a child can save a marriage. Is it ever the case that this is actually true?
I have no idea. I imagine it must be true in some cases, because I think there is an infinite variety of ways to make a relationship succeed, and only the people within each relationship can ever really know why it works or doesn’t. But I’ve never had a child, nor have I been married, so how would I know?
In your dream scenario, what thoughts/epiphanies would you have readers take away from this book?
It’s less important to me what the reader takes away than that the reader takes away something, and something inexpressible. Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite writers, puts it this way: “I want to make a reader feel something that cannot be put into words, even though that feeling comes out of the words.”
About the Author
Michael Lowenthal’s fourth novel, The Paternity Test, was a Boston Globe bestseller and an IndieNext List selection. His previous novels are The Same Embrace (Dutton, 1998), Avoidance (Graywolf Press, 2002), and Charity Girl (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice title and Washington Post Top Fiction of 2007 pick. He has taught at Boston College and Hampshire College and, since 2003, has been on the faculty of Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing. He lives in Boston.
There are no comments yet, add one below.