Jennifer Gilmore turns adoption experiences into novel

THE MOTHERS. Jennifer Gilmore. Scribner. 277 pages. $26.
THE MOTHERS. Jennifer Gilmore. Scribner. 277 pages. $26.

After surviving an endlessly nasty, hope-killing adoption experience and writing many astonishing essays about it, Jennifer Gilmore wants to see whether this material works as a novel. I’m here to say, it definitely works.

The Mothers retains certain aspects of nonfiction. There’s an interiority to it, a desultory listing of facts whether or not they move the plot, a tenacious focus on sequence rather than action. Lovely as it is, the novel feels like a memoir in which random, arbitrary details have been changed.

The story revolves around a couple, Jesse and Ramon, feverishly shopping for a baby before it’s too late. Jesse, a New York-based writing teacher, is fast approaching 40. She’s a cancer survivor who is desperate to be a mother but cannot carry a baby, probably because of the treatments that saved her life.

She and Ramon enter the labyrinth of the “open adoption” system, that barbaric popularity contest in which vulnerable women choose adoptive couples like lottery winners. The process is unfair, random, fickle, dehumanizing.

Jesse, whose history of cancer disqualifies her from international adoption, becomes a grasping manipulator. At an adoption “training” session in which prospective parents are asked to choose pompoms that represent the colors of the people in their lives, Jesse leans past Ramon and grabs all the pompoms, piling them in front of her like a child. Later Ramon points out that he would have liked to participate. Also — and this is the knife blade — he notes that Jesse grossly overestimated their number of black friends.

Jesse resents her mother for conceiving easily, then leaving her children to be raised by the help. Jesse resents her pregnant friends and the women she meets who have been successful adopting overseas. Ramon, for his part, retreats, plays video games and drinks copious amounts of beer. Theirs is a brutal but believable story, a 15-month ordeal from which there appears to be no escape.

Then the birth mothers parade through, each more scheming and evil than the last. One of Gilmore’s essays is included here almost verbatim: a vignette in which a probably not-even-pregnant woman arranges to meet Jesse at a restaurant in New Jersey, scams a meal and some exotic lotions from the couple, and then wanders off into the adjoining mall.

For all this pain, though, The Mothers is surprisingly easy to read, clipping from one obstacle to another with humor and insight. Jesse grows wiser as she draws ever closer to her dreaded 40th birthday.

And throughout it all runs Jesse’s refrain, a mantra about mothers, the choices and deals we make: Would she choose any of her friends to be the birth mother of her child? What about the ones who were sloppy about early pregnancy, drinking a second or third glass of wine? Moreover, had she been able to get pregnant, would she herself have been good enough?

Gilmore adopted a baby boy this year, long after The Mothers was complete. And this bit of joyous reality will undoubtedly become part of the novel’s lore.

Ann Bauer reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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