A Theory of Relativity
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A Theory of Relativity

3.7 11
by Jacquelyn Mitchard

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A terrible accident has left little Keefer orphaned but not unwanted. Devastated by his beloved sister's tragic death, twenty-four-year-old bachelor Gordon McKenna assumes that he will be entrusted with raising his niece, whom he has grown extremely close to over the few precious months of Keefer's life. But the child's paternal grandparents have different

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A terrible accident has left little Keefer orphaned but not unwanted. Devastated by his beloved sister's tragic death, twenty-four-year-old bachelor Gordon McKenna assumes that he will be entrusted with raising his niece, whom he has grown extremely close to over the few precious months of Keefer's life. But the child's paternal grandparents have different ideas—and a fierce legal battle ensues that will test the capacity and limitations of family love again and again . . . and no one will emerge from it unscathed or unchanged.

Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose powerful, emotionally rich novels have won resounding critical acclaim and a wide, enthusiastic audience worldwide, brings us a soaring, heartbreaking, and unforgettable tale of love and the bonds that unite us all.

Editorial Reviews

People Magazine
"Few are her equal in illuminating the personal stake we all have in the daily business of living."
“Few are her equal in illuminating the personal stake we all have in the daily business of living.”
Us Weekly
“Deft . . . complex . . . a powerful tale of a shattering custody battle.”
"Mitchard . . . brings literary finesse, wisdom, and deep emotion to this believable and remarkably involving tale."
The Barnes & Noble Review
Proving that her riveting and heart-wrenching debut novel, The Deep End of the Ocean was no fluke, Jacqueline Mitchard tackles the concept of family in the aptly titled A Theory of Relativity.

Georgia McKenna is already dying of cancer when she and her husband, Ray, are killed in a car accident that leaves their one-year-old daughter, Keefer, orphaned. In a will drafted months before, Georgia and Ray granted custody of Keefer to Georgia’s 24-year-old single brother, Gordon. But unbeknownst to Gordon, Georgia and Ray had recently revoked that will to start on a new one, which was never signed. Ray’s parents immediately fire the first volley by filing for custody of Keefer, arguing that the child is connected to them by blood (Gordon and Georgia were both adopted children). Legal wrangles follow, the impact of which will be felt far beyond the boundaries of family. After several highly emotional confrontations, the matter gets resolved in a most unexpected and tragic way.

It is to Mitchard’s credit that there are no good guys or bad guys here, just a host of well-meaning but confused relatives reeling with grief and struggling to do the right thing. The judicial and legislative elements give the work the flavor of a legal thriller, but the true heart of the story lies in the characters’ struggles to balance their hearts and minds as they decide the fate of one little girl. (Beth Amos)

US Weekly
Deft . . . complex . . . a powerful tale of a shattering custody battle.
Mitchard, by her own account, was in the midst of writing "a perfectly nice novel" when she learned of an adoption suit involving a child whose parents met untimely deaths. At stake was the placement of the orphaned child and the feelings of those who loved her. Would she find a permanent home with her grandparents or with her parents' best friends? Or would she be placed with her uncle who, having been adopted himself as a child, could make no legal claim to being a blood relative? Mitchard's third novel picks up where the headlines left off. The facts have been changed, of course, but Mitchard is true to her theme, presenting every possible definition of family over the course of these pages. Oddly, the book feels both rushed and static: peppered with one-sentence paragraphs, breezy characterizations and convenient if not altogether credible coincidences. There's lots of story here and plenty of theme, but with all the plot tricks and personalities, it's a bit hard to locate the novel's heart.
—Beth Kephart

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When real life inspires fiction, an authentic and convincing voice is often the happy result. Here Mitchard draws on her own experience as an adoptive parent and as a one-time participant in a custody suit to produce gripping fiction on a par with her Oprah pick, The Deep End of the Ocean. Once again, she excels in rendering domestic scenes and family relationships while providing a suspenseful story that tugs at the heartstrings. Keefer Nye, only a year old when her parents die in a car crash near Madison, Wis., is the focal point of a bitter, protracted and precedent-setting custody battle. Keefer's bachelor uncle, 24-year-old science teacher Gordon McKenna, seems the most appropriate custodian for his tiny niece, since he helped his elderly parents care for Keefer while his sister (Keefer's mother, Georgia) battled cancer. Challenging his claim, the affluent Nye grandparents, country-club Floridians, believe that their niece and her husband, born-again Christians, should get custody. Mitchard's nuanced character portrayals are her strong suit; no one is without frailties. But she subtly favors the McKenna family, conveying their anguish when Keefer is swept out of their arms by a court order. The decision hinges on the fact that both Georgia and Gordon were adopted by the elder McKennas, and a state law decrees that adoptees are not considered blood relatives when they themselves wish to adopt a family member. Keefer becomes a pawn in legal maneuvering as the ability to nurture is weighed against genetic connection. A weeper that tackles provocative issues, this novel pushes all the right buttons. Agent, Jane Gelfman. 10-city author tour; simultaneous audio and large print editions; rights sold in France, Italy and the U.K. (July) Forecast: After the disappointment of her second novel, The Most Wanted, Mitchard hits her stride again in this bound-to-be bestseller. The circumstances of her own life as a widow with five adopted children, the popularity of her syndicated newspaper column, and the recent movie version of The Deep End of the Ocean will be factors in a fast take-off. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Most people assume that adopted children have the same rights as biological ones. In this novel, Mitchard details the struggle for custody that ensnares Gordon McKenna when he tries to adopt the orphaned daughter of his sister. Both Gordon and his late sister were adopted, and though they were raised as siblings, they were not blood relatives. This dilemma would have made a compelling short story. Unfortunately, there is not enough substance to keep the listener's interest in this lengthy audiobook read by Juliette Parker. The author sprinkles a little too much "baby-talk" throughout the work, and it does eventually become grating. Although Mitchard's first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was an Oprah book selection, this title just doesn't measure up. Not a necessary purchase. Theresa Connors, Arkansas Tech Univ., Russellville Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Oprah's first pick (The Deep End of the Ocean, 1996, etc.) returns, this time with a repetitive and tedious examination of a custody battle. The tale begins with tragedy as Georgia and Ray Nye are killed in a car accident. Georgia, suffering from a terminal cancer, was expected to die soon, but the death of Ray raises an unanticipated question: Who will care for their one-year-old daughter, Keefer? Of course Georgia's parents, the McKennas, want beloved Keefer to stay with them in the small Wisconsin town she knows. And of course the Florida-based Nyes want her as well. Soon, though, both sets of grandparents, realizing their age would hamper their custody suits, agree on surrogates: Georgia's brother Gordon and Ray's cousin Delia each petition to adopt Keefer. Gordon loses the first round under a state law granting automatic adoption rights only to blood relatives. Both Gordon and Georgia were adopted as infants, and though the McKenna family bond is tight, it holds no sway with the archaic law. So Delia and her husband Craig, second cousins who barely know Keefer, are granted temporary rights until an appeal. The familiar theme of selfishness in child custody cases gets ample play here. Both parties believe they're the best suited to raise Keefer, who clearly suffers as she is shuttled back and forth for visits between religiously strict Delia and Craig and the arty, relaxed McKennas. Mitchard does well with characters: the charming, slightly irresponsible Gordon, the tightly wound Nyes, even the wild Georgia (in flashbacks) all come to life on the page. Here, however, her story depends too much on the adoption outcome and becomes mired in the sorrow, thickas molasses, that results from the waiting. It takes much too long to get to the admittedly touching surprise end, narrated by nine-year-old Keefer. Mediocre fare, on balance, despite the few tears won at the close. (For another Oprah-anointed author, see Cleage, above.) Author tour; radio satellite tour

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

They died instantly.

Or close enough.

Gordon, of course, knew that "instantly," in this context, didn't mean what it seemed to suggest: Several minutes would have passed inside the car after the impact, while the final tick and swoosh of Ray's and Georgia's heart-sent blood swept a pointless circuit, while muscles contracted loyally at the behest of a last volley of neurological commands. But there would have been no awareness, or only a few twilight seconds -- and no memory.

Most of the others in Tall Trees, the McKenna family and their friends, didn't know as much about the biology involved or care to. Small town people, they were accustomed to having something to be grateful for, even death no more physically complex than a power failure. It seemed to many a source of comfort. And as the months unfurled, comfort of any sort was in short supply.

Even Gordon had to admit he was relieved. Couldn't it have been worse, much, much worse?

It could have been. This, Gordon decided, in those few breathless, shocky moments as he prepared to leave his school classroom and drive to the scene of the accident at Lost Tribe Creek, would be his mantra. He would not yowl and quake at this abrupt conclusion to the year of living catastrophically. He would not let himself come unglued. Dread tapped at his gut, like an unwelcome salesman tapping insistently at the window -- Your sister is dead; your sister really is dead! But Gordon breathed in and out, spoke to himself of focus.

He would be the one who remained analytical. Lookingat the facts straight on was both his nature and his calling. He could do that best of anyone in his family. It would be the way he would protect himself and his parents.

He was, of course, frightened. All the signs. The trembling legs. The fluttering pulse. It had begun the moment he heard Sheriff Larsen's voice.

"Gordon," said the sheriff, "what are you doing, son?"

What was he doing?

An old friend of his father's calling him in the middle of a weekday, at school, though by rights he should not even have been there, the term having ended for summer break two weeks earlier, asking him what he was doing? Something was up, something bad; he could not imagine what; everything bad had already happened.

Gordon felt a burning the size of a pinprick deep in his abdomen.

"I'm cleaning, um, my classroom," he'd answered finally, uneasily. "Throwing out the moldy agar dishes. Reading all the love letters the kids left in the lab trays. Science teacher fun."

"Good," Sheriff Larsen said. "Good." His voice had always reminded Gordon of Ronald Reagan's. "So...so, you alone there?"

Gordon had been alone and relishing the solitude. The days when Georgia went to the University of Minnesota for her chemotherapy were the only times the McKennas felt they had permission to do ordinary tasks -- get haircuts, return library books -- things that felt shameful and selfish when Georgia was home and miserable. He had almost not answered the phone. For it would surely have been his mother with another bulletin about the afternoon's accomplishments of his year-old niece, Keefer: -- She'd held her own spoon! She'd said "Moo!" Gordon loved Keefer and thought her exceedingly bright, but this was becoming like CNN Headline News.

"What's up?" he'd asked Dale Larsen.

And as the older man spoke -- an accident, a very bad accident, no survivors, should he cruise by there and pick Gordon up -- the level of shock built until Gordon's chest seemed to have room to contain his heart or his lungs, but not both. This was normal, was probably a kind of hypotensive shock. Fear, he reminded himself, was, like anything else, only a thought. Hadn't he mastered that a year ago, when they'd learned that Georgia, Gordon's only sister, just twenty-six years old, a triumphant wife and exultant new mother, had cancer, stage four, Do-Not-Pass-Go cancer? Hadn't he watched her suffer an endless year of days, mourned and mopped and propped and wished for her release and flogged himself for the wishing?

It was over. She had been released.

And Ray, Georgia's husband, Gordon's longtime friend, his sweet-souled frat buddy from Jupiter, Florida , a lumbering athlete with a physicist's brain and the heart of a child.... Ray was dead, too. Gordon had to recalibrate. Ray had told Gordon more than once during the illness, Bo, I can't live without her. Gordon had sensed it had been more than just a manner of speaking. So perhaps Ray had felt gratitude, too, in the last conscious instant of his life. The mind was capable of firing off dozens of impressions in fractions of seconds.

And so it had proved with his own mind. Gordon decided he would not call his mother. He would give her these few last moments of innocent play with Keefer. Nor would he call his Aunt Nora. She was as brave as a bear, but for all her homespun daffiness Gordon could never quite believe that the same twentieth century that had produced his own parents had also produced Aunt Nora. Nora had told Gordon not long ago she didn't need to know all the whys and wherefores, that she would ask Georgia about it someday, in heaven.

But heaven, Gordon thought, as he carefully parked his car a prudent distance up on the dry shoulder of the road, had been only a concept when Nora made that statement. Now, that kingdom had come. Nora would be shattered.

It would be he, he realized, at twenty-four the youngest but one of his cousins, who would have to provide the strong shoulder, the steadying hand.

But everything he saw looked odd, looked unsettling.

For everything looked like any other day...

A Theory of Relativity. Copyright © by Jacquelyn Mitchard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

New York Times bestseller Jacquelyn Mitchard's novels include The Deep End of the Ocean, Twelve Times Blessed, and The Breakdown Lane. She is also the author of The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship, a collection of her newspaper columns. She lives with her husband and six children in Madison, Wisconsin.

Brief Biography

Madison, Wisconsin
Place of Birth:
Chicago, Illinois
B.A. in English, Rockford College, 1973

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