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Kinship Theory: A Novel

Kinship Theory: A Novel

4.0 1
by Hester Kaplan

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Maggie Crown has agreed to bear a child for her infertile daughter as a gift and as redemption for them both - but will they find it?"Who better than a mother to do it? It's just reversing the natural order a bit," Dale explains when she asks her mother to bear the child she cannot have herself. Maggie Crown, 47, divorced, and a scientist, says yes to her daughter,


Maggie Crown has agreed to bear a child for her infertile daughter as a gift and as redemption for them both - but will they find it?"Who better than a mother to do it? It's just reversing the natural order a bit," Dale explains when she asks her mother to bear the child she cannot have herself. Maggie Crown, 47, divorced, and a scientist, says yes to her daughter, and through gestational surrogacy, is soon carrying a baby that is "hers to love, but never to keep." As Maggie's relationship with her daughter is thrown into new and often painful focus with this understanding, she begins to question her decision, her choices in life, and herself as a good mother. When Dale struggles with the new baby, Maggie is forced into action she sees alternately as betrayal and necessity. Ripe explores the nature of desire, the bonds of family, and the possibilities and passions of parenthood.

Editorial Reviews

The character of Maggie Crown represents both an impressive accomplishment for Helen Kaplan and a challenge for future writers hoping to capture the psychology of the single woman.
Guilt, pain and regret are Kaplan's themes, both in this affecting and inventive first novel and her previous award-winning collection of stories, The Edge of Marriage. At forty-seven, divorced scientist Maggie Crown has halfheartedly agreed to be the surrogate mother of her daughter Dale's baby. The process is awkward for Maggie, and immediately distances her from her daughter. As she grows more attached to the unborn child, Maggie faces feelings of motherly inadequacy over Dale's infertility. She is also burdened by a desire for Ben, her best friend's husband, and the belief that she'll be lonely after the baby arrives. Once the baby is born, Maggie's house begins to crumble (literally and figuratively) when Dale's marriage troubles make adjustment to the newborn Lily difficult. Maggie tells Dale she is a poor mother and feels forced to take care of the baby herself. Meanwhile, Maggie sustains an affair with Ben, who moves in with her and Lily; the two become substitutes for his wife and dying son. Nearly all of the novel's myopic characters are in search of love without loss, and Kaplan's passionate prose and attention to imagery focus a sharp light on their cavernous emotional worlds.
—Rebecca Rego

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
HOriginally titled The Altruist, this debut novel from an accomplished short story writer asks questions that are as much ethical as emotional. What bonds tie mother to daughter? What justifies profound sacrifice, or that sacrifice's retraction? Kaplan explores these complex issues intimately and with extraordinary skill. Maggie Crown, 48, agrees to bear the child that her infertile daughter, Dale, desperately wants. Behind Maggie's decision lie decades of doubt about her own maternal performance: Dale interrupted Maggie's career as a scientific researcher and trapped her in a miserable marriage. Now divorced and independent at last, Maggie feels buried by the weight of her pregnancy as her daughter grows inexplicably distant. Midway through her pregnancy, Maggie falls into a relationship with her boss (and best friend's husband), Ben Wakem. Dale, who is having her own marital troubles, is unsympathetic and angry. The tangled situation grows knottier when Maggie gives birth to Lily, and Dale proves to be a careless, even dangerous mother. Maggie faces the wrenching possibility of withdrawing the greatest gift she has ever given--and confronting the malice that hides behind her closeness to Dale. Although not far from "Movie-of-the-Week" fare in concept, Kaplan's novel is subtle in execution, yielding a nuanced insight into the treacherous but redemptive nature of maternal and romantic bonds. Agent, Jennifer Carlson. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
If being a mother is the ultimate sacrifice, then a daughter's asking her mother to carry a baby for her is the ultimate imposition. At least that's the way it seems in this first novel from Kaplan, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for The Edge of Marriage. Fortyish, divorced Maggie has sullenly agreed to serve as surrogate mother for the baby of her sterile daughter, self-centered Dale, who is still in her twenties and obsessed with being a mother only because she can't bear a child. Meanwhile, Maggie is renewing an affair with co-worker Ben, who's been married for years to her best friend. And Dale's husband is fooling around with one of his high school students. These people ought to be in family therapy, not exploring surrogate parenthood. The prose is clear and proficiently crafted, and the narrative maintains suspense as the reader wonders what these awful people will do next. Ultimately, however, the characters' limited insight into their own pettiness and self-indulgence becomes tiresome. No doubt many readers will enjoy this story of selfish people in contrived relationships, but women's fiction should aim higher than this. For larger fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/00.]--Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.58(w) x 8.28(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


MAGGIE Crown was pregnant with her daughter's baby, and she was alone. Her imagination insisted on veering toward peril during the long pacing minutes and the solitary wait in the chill of an ultrasound examination room. She was a scientist, and so at first her mind presented her with clinically detailed pictures of a baby with missing limbs, its organs gnarled as walnuts, its skull filled with dishwater. She was a mother as well though, and next saw a narrow-eyed fetus (vaguely resembling her ex-husband) hugging his knees and smirking at her. But women who are going to have babies always feel a little undone by fear; she wasn't alone in envisioning the worst. Awake, they dream of their children born with the ears and tails of dogs, of their mothers, of their past, of disappointing lovers, of the things in life that break your heart.

Nervous sweat iced Maggie's face and her nausea rose so fast she thought she might be sick in the metal sink. Why wasn't Dale there with her now? She had counted on her daughter's company and calm to assure her that everything would be fine, that the day would reveal something wonderful. But Dale had said on the phone the night before that she wouldn't be able to pick her mother up, they would have to meet at the appointment instead—and now, oddly, she was late. The music in Dale's apartment had been playing too loudly when they talked, so that her voice had only the thinnest edge of intention.

To distract herself, Maggie moved through the room and opened drawers jumbled with tubes of jellies, flat-ended wooden prodders, scrapers, a hundred sharpimplements. Rubber gloves in a cardboard box slithered and sighed when she poked at them. On the counter, diaphragms were lined up like dishes in a dollhouse plate rack. Women came in different sizes, like men, but she found it funny that no one ever talked about this or what it might imply. She'd have to bring it up with Doris. Her closest friend might be embarrassed at first in her vaguely prissy way, but would be eager enough to get into it later. Through the thin, female-colored walls, Maggie heard the murmur of professionally pleasant voices and the amplified sound of a fetal heart beating.

Soon, a hazy picture of the baby would appear on the screen of the ultrasound machine; but such technology, she knew from years of her own work in the eye lab, was cold, heartless in its goals, unconcerned with outcomes. In the end, it would send people back to Ouija boards, to hand-holding, and silent prayers at night. She distrusted it not only for what it might reveal later, but more for what it could never divine and make sense of, that she was forty-eight, and that this baby she was growing was not hers at all—not genetically, biologically, or legally—but Dale's. The list flowed through her mind in a well-practiced, rational way. The machine might detect fetal abnormalities or not, but it could never know that this baby was the product of a request, a promise between mother and daughter, a cautious pact between warm body and cool technology, the emotional, the bloodless, the oldest and the newest forces in the world in edgy, untested alliance. It could not know this baby was for her to love, but not to keep.

"SORRY, sorry, sorry," Dale repeated when she finally arrived, her hands up and open, as though she'd just let loose a bird. A telephone call and a traffic jam on Beacon Street formed the tangle of her excuse. Maggie half listened and watched the way her daughter's fingers strained through her hair, how they twisted the rings she wore on both forefingers.

The white-coated technician came in and instructed Maggie to lie back on the table. A line of gel was spread across her belly. The lights were turned off, and the monitor was turned on, casting a silver glow through the room. Dale sat on a stool, leaned forward studiously, elbows to knees, chin in hand, ready to be instructed rather than delighted. There was a recent immovability about Dale, a holding back and keeping in, that Maggie didn't like to think about.

"No, exhale, please," the technician told Maggie, and tapped her hand.

"Breathe normally," Dale urged. "You're way too tense."

But Maggie could not take a full inhale either—her lungs were already filled with something as sodden as a premonition—and she sucked in tiny clots of air. When she turned to look at the screen she saw nothing but white dust in an overcrowded night sky, and she immediately thought of disaster, a planet exploded inside her womb. She imagined airplanes vaporizing in midair, bodies returned to their original, wet, red state. A line of panic began to crawl across her chest: there was no baby here. Maggie forced herself to look again, to acknowledge the scampering of cells inside her womb, and now a picture began to fall into place, like distant forms appearing in a fog. She saw the curve of a head turned diffidently away, a bubble of a heart fluttering like a whip of ribbon in the wind, its shades of black and gray already in training for the endless highs and lows of life. A whooshing, watery sound filled the room.

For a stunning moment, Maggie and the baby lived at the center of the world. They were a single, twisted filament around which everything else scattered and sizzled, grew and then disappeared. The blood rushed in her ears, pounded at her fingertips and deep between her legs. There was no form to her body at all now, no barrier between outside and inside, no age or hour. She knew this was the single transforming sensation of a lifetime, unlike anything else.

Maggie turned excitedly to her daughter, but Dale was frozen and silent, staring at the monitor, her legs coiled tightly around the base of the stool, her back rigid. It seemed that in her stillness, Dale understood she was missing something essential at that moment but was unable to do anything about it. Sadly, Maggie recalled that when she'd been pregnant with Dale twenty-five years earlier, she too had missed something like this, had felt nothing like what she'd just experienced. The room in its dimness took on the hollow, sorrowful air of a cave.

"Do you see the baby?" Maggie asked Dale. The technician's rolling wand ground painfully against her belly like a fist.

"No, not yet." Dale tilted her body closer to the screen. "Give me a second. All I see is snow. Lots of snow."

Dale had never been good at the game of finding shapes in the clouds, or describing the face on the moon either, so the technician used the wrong end of a ballpoint pen to trace the outline of the baby. The sound of plastic on glass was like teeth against teeth, cold and deathly, and Maggie didn't want to hear it, or see Dale struggle. Dr. Gauld came in then, smooth with the assurance that everything looked good, her mouth set in an overworked complexion.

"Okay, there it is. Finally, I see it now," Dale said pragmatically, and sat back as though she'd just solved a problem. "It's not so easy when you don't know what you're looking for."

Was that all her daughter would say? Where was her elation, her amazement? The technician continued to probe Maggie's insides, one hand on her wand, the other at the controls, her eyes on the screen. It's like she's playing a video game in a dark arcade, Maggie thought, and told the woman to stop, she'd had enough.

"I'm not done, Mrs. Crown. Lie back."

"But I am," Maggie said fiercely.

"Why don't you let her finish," Dale suggested, and glanced at Dr. Gauld behind her, who was bent writing under a tiny light. "It's probably almost done and then we'll be out of here. You should see your face, all twisted up and tight. What? Why are you looking at me like that?"

"This is your baby, Dale, and you've been staring at it. How do you feel? My God, at least say something."

Her daughter hesitated, and then there was a flutter at her lips, as though the words passing out were too uncertain to be spoken. It's not that she is unmoved, Maggie suddenly realized, but all she sees is a throb on the screen, the suggestion of a shape, and Dale has always needed real evidence of love, of hope. Maggie wiped the sticky gel off her skin, took her daughter's hand, and placed it on her belly.

"Touch it," she said, and felt the most tentative dots of pressure from her daughter's fingers. "Press down here."

"You know it's much too small. You know I can't possibly feel anything."

Dale's tone was measured, but with a hint of defensiveness, and she withdrew her hand quickly. In the gray of the examining room, her expression was as unreadable as the surface of cold water, and it chilled Maggie.

HOURS later, Maggie got off the train at Newton Centre and walked home. From the end of the block, she was able to see her house from a slight distance; somewhat neglected, streaked with fresh tears of rain, wood swollen but still proud. Cushioned in the bed of uncut jade grass that was her lawn, the place looked to her as if it were about to float away. She imagined it might drift through the evening over the hazy Boston skyline with her in it, and tomorrow offer lush, exotic views from its windows, landscapes that were nothing like today's.

Suddenly, though, she saw broken gray coastlines instead, violent, sooty cities, and gaping canyons painted in human colors below, and it was as if she hadn't risen at all to some great adventure—it was the earth that had fallen away from beneath her. She thought of Dale's curious dispassion that morning, and knew that this was a vision of a lonely orbit, her home—and all the life she had lived in it—without foundation now, its familiar light scattered, its rooms whisked clean of attachments.

When she won the unspectacular cape on Benton Road in her divorce battle nine years earlier, it was still the unblemished white it was intended to be. The shutters had all their slats, like mouths full of perfect teeth, and the lawn was snipped to an even buzz. Such caretaking had been Gordon's fussy work; her ex-husband was the kind of man who took a broom to the front walk, who bent at the knees to pinch a leaf that angled out of line, picked up toys left outside, and pulled weeds in the near dark, collecting them in his smooth hands.

Gordon had warned her that she would be better off bleeding him for money every month than she would be keeping the place. Maggie knew even then, at the saddest moment of disassembly of her sixteen-year marriage, that he was right— houses ate people, and she'd have a hard time not being devoured by this one. Every year it gulped down greater quantities of care and money, but she still left the windows open during storms because she loved the spray urging through the screens more than she loved being practical and thoughtful all the time. Puddles of milky water sat for days on the windowsills doing silent damage, but the rooms smelled of fruit and nature, of places much farther from the city, and of Dale, who'd grown up there. Sometimes Maggie told herself she was too attached to the place; the house was only an imperfect thing, a tilting, needy construction. It was the life inside that you were supposed to love.

Maggie unlocked the front door and breathed the hallway's cooler air. The unsettling events of the morning, now this dizzying apparition of herself aloft and alone, and July humidity so thick you could pack it into a jar, had left her sticky and agitated. Sweat silked the spaces behind her knees, under her arms and breasts. Her body was not changing gracefully in pregnancy, even at eighteen weeks, and she had developed a habit of pulling at her skin so that she was covered with faint red spots, like faded kisses. She put down her bag, which bulged with work she'd brought home from the lab. Then she stepped out of her low-heeled sandals and let her flowered skirt drop around her ankles like sea foam, then her pale underpants. Finally Maggie unbuttoned her white blouse and took off her bra so she stood naked except for the necklace of gold beads she always wore. She waited for even the thinnest breeze to wrap itself around her.

She thought of her daughter again, and how she had looked so uneasy that morning in the doctor's office. Dale was sleek as usual in her black clothes and silver jewelry, her skin still luminescent. But she seemed oddly askew, as though she'd had to push her way through an unyielding crowd to get to her mother and baby, and then wasn't sure she wanted to be there at all.

Maggie ate a dinner of fruit and listened to the news on the radio, to the drag and scratch of heat-softened noise on the street. Her eyes lingered on the textures around her—the back door's brass knob mottled green and black, her neighbor's porch light already on in the bright evening, scattered by dirty, diamond-patterned glass, her own short fingernails darkened by peach pulp. Her mouth explored the sodden honeydew and the cool, happy watermelon, the ripe nectarine. Details gave depth to a flatness she was feeling at the moment — or was it, she wondered, an unexpected pinch of longing for her daughter? Had Dale been in the kitchen then, she would have directed her mother to sit at the table. She would have offered a dinner full of the right, baby-healthy elements, and a glass of milk, instead of the wine Maggie kept eyeing. Her diligence, her attentiveness, would have tightened the air, which felt droopier with indirection by the minute. Maggie's naked solitude would also have made Dale concerned enough—there were times she wished her daughter weren't quite so scrutinizing—to wonder out loud about it. The man announcing the news on the radio was only a deep voice, she'd point out, not a lover or friend in real conversation, and in any case, his news was all bad. (And would she also mention the webs of spidery veins on Maggie's upper thighs, and the few startling tendrils of gray pubic hair?)

But Dale wasn't there in the kitchen, hadn't even called, and she had not really been so self-assured or even so attentive in a while, not since Maggie had gotten pregnant. The morning was clear enough evidence of how things had changed. Dale's unsettling and impassive mood at the doctor's office struck Maggie again now like the muddy off-taste of the overripe plum she leaned over to spit out into the sink.

For a few minutes Maggie paced the kitchen, then the hall, until she stopped and stared into her living room. She didn't know why or when it had become the one place she avoided so assiduously, but decided it was time to start over. Her first targets were the erect blue armchairs Gordon had chosen years earlier because they were sensible and appropriate—two of his favorite attributes for people and things. After years, they had finally begun to sag in gentle resignation like old military men and to fade to a softer, less serious blue. She moved them toward the window facing each other. Each time she bent over, blood rushed to her nipples like tiny cautionary headaches, and she held her breasts and slowed for a minute. She gathered up the endless piles of magazines, papers, and books that covered every surface, and dumped them in a back closet off the kitchen. Maggie knew she grew attached to too much, a fault that weighed her down and crowded rooms and her life. Dot and Isabel, her two ancient cats, walked bitchily across the tops of things until they found a place to settle together and observe her.

By the time Maggie finished she was trembly enough to have worried herself, and she sat down in one of the blue chairs by the window. She placed her hands over the swell of her stomach, which felt bruised, as though the ultrasound had actually burned its way through layers of pink tissue and the elastic wall of her muscles. She took one last look out the window for some shadow of Dale coming to talk to her, or the unexpected, uncomplicated pleasure of fireflies or fireworks or a friend. The yellow curtains were only half drawn, exposing her to the world. Maggie didn't need her flushed and pregnant nakedness under the lamp to give the neighbors one more thing to wonder about, so she reached up to pull the curtains closed. Moths continued to bang optimistically against the screen, as though their persistence would change her mind and she'd open up to warm them again.

MAGGIE tuned the radio to Eric in the Evening, the jazz show she liked mostly for the man's liquid voice, and retrieved copies of Ophthalmology and the American Journal of Ophthalmology from her bag and brought them back to the chair by the window. Her work had always been a powerful distraction for her, a passion, sometimes a frustration, but this evening the smooth white pages fanning across her belly felt like a reassuring caress. Flipping ahead, she turned to a glossy photo spread of scarred and ruined eyes, some burned by chemicals, others by illness or bad genes, lined up like a montage of repulsive most-wanted posters. She was not immune to their lure, the way they seduced the healthy to stay a little longer, take one more sideways glance, to feel pretty lucky.

Dale at six had been fascinated by Maggie's clinical textbooks and journals, which were shelved in the tiny upstairs room Gordon had claimed as his home office. She would sit on the floor with the colorful pictorial atlases of infection and deformation open on her lap, run her hands over the photographs of people with sore and scabby gazes, babies with absurdly crossed eyes. Maggie had watched her daughter study the collection of disaster as another child might study her mother's jewelry in a heart-shaped box on a dresser, or her father's ties hanging in the closet. She thought then—mistakenly, she later realized—that her daughter was like her in that way: curious, drawn to curing the afflictions in life, a little dreamy.

Looking down at Dale one night, Gordon had declared his daughter's interest in the pictures unhealthy; they'd become a kind of creepy narcotic. Always full of doubt as a mother, Maggie didn't disagree when he took the books away and instead gave Dale Stuart Little and Little House on the Prairie, though she couldn't quite read yet. Later, he moved Maggie's books to the attic. She'd watched the muscles on his back rise and lengthen as he climbed the ladder to put them away, unmoved in any way, or anymore, by his body. She wished he would never descend. The books were still up there nearly two decades later, dusty stacks of her derailed ambitions.

Maggie bent over and let her breasts rest on her thighs. She smelled herself, salty and somewhat unfamiliar, and felt the erotic pulse of her body. It made her laugh to wonder who would make love to her now, in this ridiculous state. She wanted to be admired, but didn't always think she was admirable; she wanted proximity, but couldn't stand to be crowded. She wanted confirmation, but knew she'd always doubt it. Such longing and impossibility were an inseparable pair in her life, forever jammed together and fighting, like an old married couple on a slow, hot bus. In this way, Maggie told herself, she and Dale were very much alike; her daughter would never be able to have a baby—that was the broadest fact of her life, it was the real, physical truth—and so she wanted one more than anything else.

It was the single story of the past three years, a series of unsuccessful attempts by Dale and her husband, Nate, to adopt a child. A seventeen-year-old girl named Blossom had changed her mind at the last minute and kept the baby she'd promised them. Adoption agencies and lawyers entered their names on mythically long lists, others confidently pointed them down blind leads to bitter ends. Each failure brought a little greater grief, so that when Dale cried about it, her tears were slow and golden with condensed pain. Every time she was told no, turned down, beaten out by someone else, Dale became more convinced that she would never have a child. There was something about her that people could sense, she confessed to her mother, though she didn't know exactly what it was. At Dale's lowest point, Maggie allowed herself to wonder if this were true, there was something about her; maybe it was Dale's composure that made people step back, or her infallible, effortless beauty, which she seemed unaware of. Maybe it was simply that she was too young, just twenty-two when her quest began, and Nate only thirty, to be so zealously single-minded. Perhaps they could sense a deep neediness in Dale that made them stop, fiddle, and evade—or was it only Maggie who saw this so clearly?

On the weekends, when she and Dale walked by the Charles River or around Jamaica Pond, as they had done forever, Maggie longed for the time before baby-need and baby-disappointment was the only topic and the sole desire that seemed to drive her daughter's life. She did not entirely understand it, or where this obsession had sprung from. Maggie had gotten pregnant with Dale by accident, had not wanted a child at all, and so her longings had always been of a very different sort. Sometimes she stopped listening to her daughter altogether and looked out onto the placid urban waters as though real talk—even with its predictability, repetitions, and irritations—had drowned there. When they stayed in and watched the cooking shows on television that Dale was addicted to, she saw how her daughter became mesmerized by spoons stirring and the inevitable, slow rise of bread. Momentarily, her hunger seemed sated, as though cream sauces and melted butter filled her childless void. Maggie's stomach sometimes turned at the richness, the lushness of her daughter's descriptions of the food.

Once a week they still ate breakfast together at the S & S restaurant in Inman Square. Over the years the place had gone from an awkwardly angled pair of rooms, heavy with the smell of bacon grease and cigarettes, to an overly-bright, air-filtered space with all the charm of an airport hotel. The transformation depressed Maggie—it didn't seem to be at all in the right direction—but she supposed it reflected the ways in which she and Dale had also changed in less than wonderful ways. Where conversation had once bobbed between them, ever since Dale's baby fixation a heavy deliberateness had come to sit there instead. Maggie sometimes imagined leaping up from the table so she wouldn't have to see Dale's expectant face turned to her waiting for an answer or a solution she didn't have. Her daughter's fierce attachment, her ceaseless longing, was sometimes stifling, and was painful evidence to Maggie that she'd been an unsure, aloof mother. But wasn't this always the way between mothers and daughters? she wondered. Wasn't this the truth of herself as a daughter, too?

And then a year ago in Maggie's kitchen, they had read in the Sunday Globe about a forty-seven-year-old school librarian in Hollywood, Florida, who was having a baby for her daughter, who, like Dale, had been born without a uterus. They had bent over the picture of the woman, their fingers tapping the big belly taut against a sweatshirt, the shag haircut, with the odd feeling that they were looking at themselves. The woman was watering a philodendron that had gone crazy and crept up walls streaked with flowered paper.

"You done?" Dale had asked Maggie before she turned to page 23, where the article continued. The newspaper had already softened under her hands.

The daughter looked like her mother, same leafy haircut, an upturned nose, elbows two sharp points on a clean kitchen table. It had all seemed so otherworldly to Maggie, as distant as sedated pain, and it made her think how far Hollywood, Florida, was from Newton, Massachusetts. Out the window in Florida was an orange tree heavy with fruit, while on the wall to the right of the daughter was a set of pot holders and a calendar showing a covered bridge and a man in boots trekking through deep snow, a pine branch held in front of him like a divining rod. The picture was so aggressively winter in New England that Maggie's first and most lasting thought was, these parts don't fit, this is not as simple or benevolent as it looks.

Later Maggie would recognize her quick dismissal as panic, but at the time, she had simply said, "This is very strange science," and gone back to cutting vegetables for minestrone soup. Behind her, Dale flipped back to the beginning of the article, and said that it was actually very amazing science if you thought about it. She read the piece again, a few lines out loud. A little later, when she'd left to have dinner with Nate and her father and his wife, May, Dale's eyes were rimmed red; not, Maggie knew, from the onions she had chopped so fine they'd floated off the cutting board on their own stinging juice.

Maggie understood only later that a shift had occurred that day in the kitchen. At the time, it was enough to see that her daughter no longer cried or asked to be soothed quite so often. She didn't question it, but simply welcomed the reprieve a little selfishly and hoped it would last. Dale was finally thinking of things other than disappointment—her marriage, her job, her friends, her life. At work, she had a new position as promotions director at an Internet company, and appeared happy enough to be sucked into the screen's life for hours.

And then, three months later, she and Dale had stood in a snowed-in parking lot outside the S & S, where they'd just finished eating, and watched a plow lazily work its way around the cars.

"I guess we're not going anywhere for a few minutes," Dale said, and zipped up her pillowy coat. Steel gray, it made her look like a rain cloud. Dale had hovered too close that morning; at one point, she'd leaned far over the table and toppled the tower of tiny plastic cream containers Maggie had erected. She told her mother not to play with her food.

"I'm not sure why we live here and put up with this weather at all," Maggie said, and added that now she'd be late to the lab. Already she felt the damp seeping into her shoes. "It says something basically masochistic about all of us."

"Yes, but you love it. Admit it—all this weather, good, bad, and destructive, is your favorite thing. I'm not sure why exactly." Dale wiped the snow off Maggie's hair. "Do you remember the woman in Florida we read about in the paper?"

"Of course I do." When Maggie had heard that Hollywood was a town always on the edge of a Miami riot, she'd pictured the librarian, pregnant with her own grandchild, cowering in the corner of her shag-carpeted bedroom, eyeing the gun stashed in the bedside table. "But Florida's much worse than this. Its range is only hot and hotter. And anyway, that's where my mother lives, so forget it. I'd rather get frostbite."

"I really wasn't suggesting we move there." Dale hesitated. "I saw the woman on the news last night."

Maggie sucked in the damp air. It was what she needed suddenly, like glass after glass of cold water. In front of her the cars were as glossy as gumballs in the wet snow, and traffic had stopped on Cambridge Street. Some people looked unhappy at the prospect of missing work, but many more, she noticed, looked as though this were their first lucky break in years. She felt tension radiating from Dale beside her, and her own mind jumbled with urgency: she'd left the stove on, there was a crisis at work, cancer was invading her breast that second. There was something she'd forgotten to do but she couldn't remember what it was. She really had to leave, to run.

"Maybe we can maneuver around the plow. Or I'll stand out here and direct you." Maggie looked at her watch. "I have a new group for the eye study coming in half an hour. I really have to go."

"Plenty of time—look, he's almost done. It's called gestational surrogacy," Dale said in a factual way that made Maggie think of Gordon. "In case you were wondering."

"Thanks. I know what it's called."

The plow finished and backed out of the lot. Dale unlocked the door of her tiny Honda, scratched and dented with evidence of her driving habits. "The daughter's eggs, the husband's sperm, the mother's uterus. It's remarkable that it can be done at all—but in a way it also makes absolutely perfect sense. Are you getting in?"

"Why is that?"

"Who better than the mother to do it? Really, what is the difference between the mother and daughter when you think about it. It's just reversing the natural order a bit, but the ingredients stay the same."

Instead of looking over the roof of the car at her daughter, who was expecting a response even as snow landed on her eyelashes, Maggie stared down at her feet in their chapped brown flats. Always the wrong shoe for the wrong day, that's what kind of person I am, she thought, out of step, off-kilter. She knew that if she stood there long enough, and the snow kept falling, when she finally moved the shape of her shoes would remain, like the outline of an accident, the place where someone had been hit and fell.

"This might actually be a blizzard," Maggie mumbled. "Did you know about this? Where have I been that I didn't?"

"They've only been talking about it for days on the news. Were you listening at all?" Dale shifted from foot to foot.

"I thought I was. Look, maybe I should just take the subway this morning, save you the drive. The roads are awful already."

"I meant were you listening to me. Anyway, I want to drive you," Dale said firmly. "I want to talk to you. But I'm getting really cold, so can we get in now, please, or is there some reason we need to stand out here in the snow?"

Maggie reluctantly opened the door and slid onto the seat. Nate's basketball sat between her feet like a dog, and the car was littered with his students' work. At The Willows, the year-round residential school where he taught, his students produced sad confessions scribbled in journals by the armload. Maggie had read some of them once, with Nate hanging over her shoulder eager for her reaction, but she had soon felt too pummeled by the litany of missteps and sorrows to keep going. They made her feel old and out of things. Maggie turned around and saw a shovel resting on the back seat. She knew Nate would have made sure Dale had what she needed before she left the house. He might have placed a hat on her head too, if he thought she'd be cold, rubbed her lips with protective balm, asked what he should make her for dinner.

Dale put a stick of Dentyne into her mouth and threw the wrapper on the dashboard, where a small collection gathered like dried flowers. "She's having twins. I heard that on the news, too."

"Give me a piece of that."

Dale handed the gum to Maggie, who softened the pink block between her fingers and finally turned to her daughter. The smell of sweet cinnamon was strong. "I know what you're thinking, Dale, but it's completely impossible. I'm too old, so don't even ask. You can drive now. Go ahead. It's clear"

"Actually, not impossible at all," Dale persisted. "The woman in Florida is your age. Did you know that?"

"Yes, I know that. Listen, Dale, I live alone, I work too hard, spend too many hours in the lab. I talk to myself, I never eat the right things. I drink too much coffee, too much wine, eat too much fat, no fiber. I don't know when snowstorms are coming."

"You're healthy" her daughter countered. "You're beautiful. You walk miles every day. You have good bones."

Maggie laughed. "Good bones? I inhale chemicals, I'm exposed to nasty stuff all the time. I can't handle money. Ask your father." Maggie talked frantically, competing with the fall of snow. "I hate doctors, they scare me, cancer and heart disease run in my family. The house is probably filled with lead paint. I'm indecisive, I'm impulsive, I'm clumsy. I'm crazy at times."

"And you're also smart and incredibly good at what you do. You just like to imagine you're a mess, but you're not."

Maggie wouldn't add that she sometimes slept with men she didn't like very much, men whose hairs she'd find on her pillow, whose condoms were stuck to the bottom of the wastebasket the next morning, or that she could be cruel and too critical, even to Dale, in ways that surprised her. She wouldn't add that there were too many other things she wanted to do instead of this, that she'd have to stay too still to have a baby, that it would age her too fast. That her body had made a terrible mistake the first time around with Dale, and to do it twice would just be asking for it. Or that she wasn't sure Dale was up to the job of motherhood at the moment, despite the intensity of her longings—or maybe simply because of them. What did Dale understand at all about being a mother? And wasn't a woman supposed to want something more for herself first before giving it all away?

If I'd had the choice, Maggie thought incompletely. The notion of some different life was as pale now as a match lit on a bright beach.

"There are options you and Nate haven't explored," she told Dale, aware of how tight and scolding her tone had become. "Ones you haven't even considered. You're inside your computer all day, but that's not real life at all. There's too much speed and the gratifications are flimsy, and then tomorrow everything's different again. You have no idea what waiting is for."

Dale leaned over to fix the collar on Maggie's coat, and Maggie thought how much other women, Doris in particular, envied Dale's closeness to her. They were too close probably, the break never completely made even given so many opportunities and reasons, and this the very best evidence. Dale still wanted everything from her - this desire to possess her! - and she pulled away with an abruptness she quickly regretted. The cold window pressed against the back of her head like a fast-approaching headache.

"I stay up all night and go around naked. The neighbors want to burn me out of my house - which needs a lot of work, by the way. I never finish anything, I'm flighty. I still forget to lock the front door most of the time. I'm lazy and have bad thoughts. Jesus, I have menopause lurking around the corner. I have phobias, my ups and downs and moods you don't even know about. I live with cats. There are days I want to dump everything and go away forever. That can't be good." Maggie hesitated. "And I wasn't such a stellar mother to you. My God, what did you ever learn from me?"

"But I'll be the mother, not you."

Maggie smelled a sour, anxious odor rise from under her layers of clothing. "Okay then, I think it's wrong, Dale. Really wrong."

"No, it's fine, it's safe, totally," her daughter insisted. "I've talked to lots of people, I've done a ton of research this past month, yes, on the web, too, inside my computer, as you say. Nate and I have talked to doctors at the IVF clinic at Mass General. There are procedures and drugs and some precautions, but they say we'd all be good candidates. You wouldn't be the first woman to do this. It's hardly experimental at this point."

"But I've never done it before. For me it would be entirely experimental. There's only so much you can trick your body into believing. Maybe some things just shouldn't happen, some things shouldn't be forced. Women having babies at forty-eight, women having babies for other women. It's too complicated, it does terrible things to their heads, to them. What will happen to them later on? What will it do to us, Dale?" Her words hung in the air as frozen mist.

"But I'm not another woman, and neither are you, and nothing will happen to us now or later. This baby would be my baby and Nate's, not someone else's. And I'm asking you today, because if we wait, we'll lose the chance. You really will be too old then."

"But look what I did to you. I gave you a body that couldn't have babies," Maggie said desperately. Her daughter's lack was the greatest sorrow of her life, but she understood it was also what bound them so closely to each other. "I already fucked up once. It would be completely crazy to do it again, to test what we're made of."

"It wasn't your fault, and the likelihood is just... Well, it won't happen again, that's all. It would be like getting struck by lightning or winning the Megabucks."

Maggie shook her head. "You're so confident, Dale. So convinced by statistics and probabilities. I just don't know how you can be, or what you do with all the parts of life that don't make sense, that don't fall the way you expect them to." She sighed. "You can love a child that isn't genetically yours, you know. People do it every day."

"Yes, I know they do, but if you had a choice, wouldn't you want this more? Wouldn't you want to know what your child was made of?"

"You can't control the future any better that way," Maggie said. She turned away from her daughter to watch the city disappear behind a gauze of steady snow. She believed in the force of spirit - she knew hers to be like her daughter's, particularly willful and not always so thoughtful - but she knew the determination of the body was stronger. It aged when you didn't want it to, it allowed itself dangerous pleasures without pause or caution, it loved what and when it wasn't supposed to. It could turn on you. There was no way to explain how she, young and healthy, had borne a daughter without a uterus. Freak occurrence, bad luck, even a clinical name for it was no explanation for why it happened, and it didn't ease her guilt or regret.

"All I know is that the thing I want most is the thing I can't have," Dale said. She lifted her hands and Maggie saw that her palms were pink, as though stained. "I want a baby so much I can't stand it, I ache all over. Sometimes I feel like I might die over this." Snow had blanketed the windshield, and Dale's voice had a glassy sharpness to it. "You've always done everything for me. I know what I'm asking now, I know how huge it is. I have thought about it. Will you lend your body to me for nine months? Have my baby for me because I can't do it for myself?"

Maggie accepted how much Dale wanted a baby, that after everything, this was not a reckless request, an indulgence. It was, Dale had said, an ache, deep down and impossible to extract or examine. Still, as completely as she knew her daughter, she did not understand the why of it entirely, when it was so painfully different from what she'd wanted. Maggie had always envisioned a boundless, unfettered life for herself in science first, and maybe a child later, but it hadn't happened that way at all.

Dale had explained over and over that she wasn't going to feel differently about this; she wasn't going to wake up one day and discover she'd grown a uterus. It wasn't a matter of patience or good behavior. She had a husband she loved, and work was not her life - it never would be - so why wait? And for what? Why not want this now instead of later? Wasn't motherhood, in fact, the best, truest thing? she'd asked.

"You don't know what it feels like to have no one follow you," Dale said softly. "The cold is always at my back. It's like someone left a window open and I can't shut it. I just want to be warm. I don't think you'll ever know what that's like. I mean, I'm always right here next to you and I always will be."

IN the weeks after Dale's request, before she made her decision, Maggie sometimes went out of her way to drive by the family planning clinic on Brookline Avenue. Stopped at the light, she tracked slim-backed women making their hunched way inside. The men who went with them caught her eye - a boy in a Boston University sweatshirt, a husband, a tired father fingering the quarters he'd collected for the parking meter. It seemed to Maggie that connections were being missed all over the place, and she would whack the steering wheel for such waste. These women didn't want a baby, but Dale did, and Maggie was tempted to rush out of the car in her lithe and furious way and make a deal for her helpless daughter, this for that, that for this - what do you want in your life more than anything? But she knew it was not so simple (though she believed it should be), that people had all sorts of inexplicable reasons for doing what they didn't believe in, for not doing what they thought was right. And on these days, she knew she couldn't change the world, but maybe only herself, to ease her daughter's losses.

A month later, on the subway on her way to work, Maggie had been caught in a heavy rain that made the morning as dirty as night. The train rocked as it pulled itself across the Salt and Pepper Bridge, and she felt herself slipping away and into herself under the weight of the decision. The puckered ribbon of the Charles River was revealed window by window, as though life were slowing down to give her time to view every piece of it.

There was a sudden wet sizzle, followed by a flash of blue, and the train stopped on the highest arc of the bridge span. The lights went out. In the dark, in an instant, anything could happen, Maggie realized. She could hear the man next to her breathing through his mouth. Maggie remembered how Dale, at ten, had once been caught on a Ferris wheel at the very top when it had stopped for some unknown reason. From down below, Maggie looked up and saw her daughter's head move like a panicked moon rising too fast in the sky. "Sit down!" Maggie had screamed. "Sit down! Just wait. It will go in a minute." Dale had only leaned farther over, straining to hear what her mother was saying. Maggie knew she was making things worse by screaming, but she couldn't stop herself from pleading as she realized how easily Dale could tip out of the bright red box and come soaring down in her yellow dress. And then the wheel had started turning again, and her daughter passed by at the lowest point, her face now blurred with delight, her fear immediately forgotten. Those are the ups and downs of motherhood, Maggie had told herself; her heart had clenched and sighed, and always would.

The lights went on and the trolley began to scratch its way forward. Maggie remembered how the woman in Hollywood had said her sole motive for having a baby for her daughter was love. Her heart too must have clenched and sighed over the years for her daughter. But love was not the only motive, it couldn't be, it was never so uncomplicated or oblivious of its surroundings or its history. Hate - hating yourself for saying no - Maggie decided, was probably a sharper, more defining sentiment. And sometimes you said yes because to not do so would be worse.

She had always carried around a burden of maternal guilt, but she could not ever say motherhood had been wrong for her. She recalled times of despair with Dale, a baby not wanted, conceived through carelessness with a man she wasn't sure she loved. She felt she had been a failure at the toughest moments with her child; she was full of self-indictment for her impatience and selfishness, and later for the hard fact of Dale's deficit. She remembered the endless worries of motherhood, the long hours of boredom, the desire to escape and do something else, the weight of responsibility, the huge wound of indecipherable resentment she thought might never heal. But amidst this, she also easily recalled the astonishing pleasure she'd found in Dale from the moment she was born, in how she moved, how she smelled, what she felt like naked, how the child loved her completely, how even the moments of sorrow could be beautiful. She loved her daughter fiercely, still. Look what you have given me and taken away, Maggie would think, look how you are the center of my life.

The newspaper had called the woman in Florida an altruist, and maybe she was. But there was joy in giving, too, and sometimes hope for the giver, and at that moment, Maggie knew she would say yes to Dale. It's what she would give her daughter.

Maggie sat up, startled by the doorbell. Its whispered static hinted at a loose wire somewhere deep in the house, and warned of the possibility of fire, and of the need to escape rather than repair. It brought to mind once more Dale's mood that morning, and Maggie's own incendiary doubts. Despite Dale's calling to her from the other side of the door, Maggie thought how much their closeness felt like distance these days. She didn't understand what her daughter was doing at all, why she was acting this way. Look what I have given you, she whispered, and look how you're miles away from me now. Look how I don't really know you anymore.

What People are Saying About This

Elizabeth Strout
With one beautifully rendered detail after another, Kinship Theory is a story that gives an extraordinary twist to the concept of mother-daughter love.
—(Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle)
Elizabeth Strout
With one beautifully rendered detail after another, Kinship Theory is a story that gives an extraordinary twist to the concept of mother-daughter love.
—(Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle)

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Kinship Theory 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Nearing fifty, divorcee Maggie Crown reluctantly agrees to serve as a surrogate mother so her sterile daughter and son-in-law can have the child they want. Maggie really does not want to carry a child for nine months as she relishes her independence and return to scientific research. However, Dale manages to make Maggie feel guilty especially using the weapon of maternal failure.

However, the birth of the child fails to prove to be the panacea that Dale expected. In spite of everyone¿s willingness to help Dale, she wants nothing to do with the care of the child and her neglect is very dangerous to the well being of the helpless baby. The delinquent father is not any better, choosing a ¿quality¿ affair with one of his highs school students. Maggie feels guilty, but believes she must step in to begin nurturing the second child she brought into the world even at the cost of losing her selfish first child.

KINSHIP THEORY is an intriguing novel that raises complex questions and intelligently does not provide pat answers. The story line is deep and well written, but the key characters aside from the newborn are so ego-centered, readers feel nothing but disdain for them. The lack of a redeeming value for the new parents and to a lesser degree the martyr Maggie hurts a powerfully intelligent relationship drama that leaves fans pondering the social issues raised by Hester Kaplan.

Harriet Klausner