Unexpected Child: A Novel

Unexpected Child: A Novel

by Patricia Grossman
Meg Krantz is searching for a lot in her life, but not for a child. She has never known what kind of mother she'd be, selfless or purely acquisitive, and she hasn't been particularly eager to find out. Enter 4 1/2 year-old Kimble Toffler. Soon to be orphaned, Kimble comes into Meg's life through Meg's volunteer work. Before long Meg wonders if—and then how—she can


Meg Krantz is searching for a lot in her life, but not for a child. She has never known what kind of mother she'd be, selfless or purely acquisitive, and she hasn't been particularly eager to find out. Enter 4 1/2 year-old Kimble Toffler. Soon to be orphaned, Kimble comes into Meg's life through Meg's volunteer work. Before long Meg wonders if—and then how—she can forge a future with this child to whom she's grown so attached. The women in her life—her mother, the child's grandmother, two former lovers, and her therapist—each offer a different perspective on motherhood as they are drawn into Meg's efforts to gain custody of Kimble. In this provocative novel, her third, Patricia Grossman gracefully tackles the complex issues of adoption and lesbian parenting and blends them with the ageless and universal themes of motherhood and rescue.

Editorial Reviews

At 37, Meg remains single, a lesbian who enjoys her indepedent life as a self-supporting artist/potter in New York. Through her volunteer efforts to help AIDS victims, she meets Kimble, not yet five, whose mother had succumbed to the virus. Her father has little time left, and the child’s maternal grandmother, Shirley, her only other blood relation, seems to be off gambling in Atlantic City, leaving Meg to look after Kimble for the duration. This interlude is extended as Shirley treats her friends to an impromptu vacation in Palm Springs with her Atlantic City winnings. As the child grows on her, Meg discovers previously unsuspected maternal feelings, emotions she finds both exhilarating and frightening because of her own unresolved tensions with her wealthy, Park Avenue mother. But how can she turn little orphaned Kimble over to the state system of foster homes? Determined to shortcut the procedures and rules as well as her own internal qualms, Meg takes on much more than the task of parenting in this engrossing tale of love and family.
ALA Booklist
Martha Miller
Grossman paints a realistic picture of a child who has had the kind of trauma that Kimble Toffler has. This author knows children. In fact, all the characters in the novel are real; even bad ones are well-rounded and sympathetic. . .In Unexpected Child, Grossman serves up a different kind of lesbian novel and an unexpectedly good read.
Lambda Book Report
Lesbian News
[Grossman’s] ability to weave a powerful and emotionally extravagant tale of a young woman finding a powerful maternal urge inside her is exceptional….Grossman’s dialogue is crisp, lively, and just the right balance of cyncism and naivete to be credible. There is a deliriously funny scene between Meg and her therapist, Libby, in which Libby confronts Meg over her continued denial about her mother’s alcoholism. ‘Of course she’s an alcoholic. . .you believe this ‘only on Sunday’ business?’ Pressing the issue, Libby dismissively adds, “so she’s an alcoholic, wallowing about with the other swine.’ On a roll, she exaggerates her point, “. . .so she’s an alcoholic. Half the people in this country are alcoholics. Some entrepreneur needs to set up recovery centers in the malls. You know, little kiosks. The alkies could stop in for a quick run through the twelve steps. Meanwhile, what are you going to do about Mom?’ The potency of Meg’s feelings for Kimble is elegantly portrayed as Meg tries to explain to the child’s grandmother why she, Meg, would be a better mother than Mrs. Marzola. “. . .I had this very odd experience of backing up and seeing the two of us as if we were in a painting. Did you ever look at two people in a painting. . .and they are just two people in a moment of time, but there is something so rock hard and permanent about the two of them that you feel comforted just looking?’ As she explains what she believes Kimble’s father, Barry would have wanted, and how he tried to parent Kimble as best he could, Meg says, “. . .there is this terrible chaos in Kimble’s universe now. Somebody has to make it right for her. Somebody has to give her gravity. . .I can stop the damage.” That episode is exquisite.. . .Unexpected Child is a finely-crafted story.
Richard Labonté
Patricia Grossman's clever, heartwarming story is smartly cut with tart, straightforward writing and a no-nonsense precision about her mix of surprisingly well-rounded characters. . . .[The ending is] so honest that only a cynic could put down this novel without a smile. . . . A savory read.
Planet Out

Product Details

Alyson Publications
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.03(h) x 0.55(d)

Read an Excerpt


"My name is Meg Krantz. I'm a volunteer at REACH. I know it's taken forever to get back to you, and I'm sorry. But I'm going to be working with you and Kimble, and I'd love for us to set up an appointment."
"Oh, yeah. REACH. Jesus. So you finally reached over here."
"I do apologize, Mr. Toffler. I know it's probably been frustrating for you."
"Yeah, well, hey, look--"
"Can we set something up?"
"Sure. You people aren't so bad. I've heard worse, believe me."
"Now, how are you feeling these days? Would you like to meet, or shall I come to you?"
"I was in St. Luke's, ya know. Respiratory stuff. I'm out now."
"Uh-huh," said Meg. "What sort of respiratory trouble?"
"Nah, not TB, don't worry. My culture was good. Anyway, hey, I'd do the quarantine.First they thought it was bacterial, then they thought it was PCP, then they thought it was viral. The fancier their machines get, the dumber they get."
"So would you like me to come to you?"
"We can meet. I'm going stir crazy sittin' here all day, ya know?" Barry held the receiver away. "Kimmy, we're gonna go out and meet a nice lady, OK?" Meg heard a clicking sound, like a Zippo cigarette lighter being snapped on and off. "She's watching her Mr. Rogers. Mr. Goody Two Shoes. If anyone used that mealy-mouthed voice on me when I was a kid, I woulda made sure he got real."
Meg had not intended to meet Barry and his daughter Kimble that day, but she found herself reluctant to correct his impression. "Here's an idea," she said. "Is it any trouble for you to get to the Central Park Zoo?"
"No, couple of transfers is all. What else is new? Gimme a time an' place."
"Say, by Seal Island at 2:00? Is that enough time for you?"
"We can do it. You gonna be wearing a REACH T-shirt or what?"
Meg disliked T-shirts with writing on them. It had always struck her as sad that people chose to identify themselves in the minds of strangers by the slogans or endorsements on their T-shirts. The last Gay Pride March she attended was full of women wearing T-shirts with boldly printed assertions: LOVE MAKES A FAMILY or WE'RE NOT JUST FRIENDS . Meg had always blanched at such overweening declarations.
"No, but l have very curly hair, practically red, about shoulder length. I'll wear a blue sweater." "You'll know me, no problem. The cane's a dead give-away. Hey, thanks for callin'. I know you guys there do your job. Listen, I'm quick to accuse, quick to forgive. Just call me 'Quick.' Except, not these days." Meg laughed. "Well, I'm looking forward to meeting you and Kimble. Kimmy?" "Whatever. Her mother called her Kimble, too. That's her real name. Her mother wanted something different, who the hell knows why. I said Katherine or Kimberly were perfectly fine, but what do I know, right? For the first time since Meg began volunteering six years ago in 1983, she had called her client without first going into the REACH office to read the intake report. Too many times in the past she had found the intake reports drawn up by lay clinicians to be weighted with editorial declarations that had no bearing on the new client's case. Sometimes the reports contained gross errors. Meg suspected that the clinicians, fearful of being found out in their sloppy note-taking, cheated on what they regarded as mere details. Once she had read in a new client's report that his lover Benjamin had recently died. When Meg had later offered condolences, she discovered that Benjamin was a distant friend who had died three years before, while the client's healthy lover of twelve years had just walked out on him. Fortunately, the client himself had saved the day. "Thanks, doll," he had exclaimed. "It's refreshing to think of maggots running across Carston's eyes as we speak." The Tofflers, Barry and Kimble, were the first related clients Meg would have. She had wanted a change, and Tina at REACH was happy to accommodate. Doubtlessly confident that Meg would scrutinize the eight-page intake report before she called the client, Tina had provided only the bare bones information laid out on the referral sheet. Meg found out that Barry was an ex-IV user with a prison record and had been in recovery for nine years. His wife Anita had died two years before. His daughter was four-and-a-half years old and HIV-negative. He needed help with household chores. He needed to get his daughter "fixed up." "Fixed-up," is all he would say, Tina claimed. "Financial?" Meg had inquired. "No problem," Tina had responded. "He was a mason. Good union benefits." * * * In front of Seal Island, Meg smiled broadly and waved her arm in the direction of a man walking with a cane and the little girl skipping in front of him. With his free hand, Barry saluted Meg. Then he called to the child, who ran once around him and stopped. He licked his thumb and wiped something off her cheek. This overtly maternal gesture was more than Meg could bear. Guiltily, she wondered if it was orchestrated for effect. The language of manipulation designed by addicts, former and present, was a romance language; it seduced with florid expressions and bathetic gestures. Barry reached Meg. Because he was shorter than she had imagined, and the child taller, an air of alliance had been established between them. Kimble plied herself against Barry's leg, stuck her thumb in her mouth, and stared up at Meg. At first sight her looks were neither pretty nor homely. She was ethereal. Her blond hair had retained its baby texture; it was flaxen and fly-away like the hair of cherubs in Romantic paintings. The skin of her temples was translucent. Meg noticed one winding pale blue vein, unwitting testament to the fragility of her circumstances. The lips that protruded around her thumb were defiantly rosy. Her Victorian dress, imitation Laura Ashley, was clearly chosen by an unstylish man trying to draw out of his daughter the reputed femininity of little girls. When Meg looked down at Kimble, she felt her face flame; she was nearly afraid. She could not remember the last time she had confronted a child's frank stare. Had she ever been so unnerved as this afternoon by the dead certainty that children know all that has to be known? Meg was deciding how to greet Kimble, when the little girl removed her thumb from her mouth and said, "Seals." "Jesus, Kimmy. Say hello to the nice lady. Say, 'My name is Kimble Toffler. It's nice to meet you.'" Kimble put her thumb back in her mouth. Meg laughed. "It's nice to meet you," she extended her hand to Barry. "I'm Meg Krantz." Barry shook Meg's hand. "Likewise." He looked at his own frail arm. "I used to have muscle mass. You wouldn't believe it." Meg nodded. Barry was about five feet nine inches. He appeared to weigh little over a hundred. His hair, like Kimble's, seemed thin in an untimely way. Yet Barry had a firm, square jaw--a Dick Tracy jaw, a jaw that inspired confidence. Muscle mass was easy to imagine. "Seals," demanded Kimble. "OK, honey," said Barry. "Seals." Together, Meg and Barry turned around and leaned on the railing to watch the seals travel their monotonous course. "Up," demanded Kimble. All color drained from Barry's face. He fumbled with his cane and did not look at Meg. Meg got behind Kimble, put her hands under her arms, and hoisted her to a position where she could wait for a seal to emerge from under the water and pirouette in front of them. Sidling up close, she braced the little girl with her arms to prevent her from falling backwards. It was a presumptuous pose to take with a strange child, a child who knew all there was to know, a child of whom Meg was nearly afraid. All three stood like that together, with Meg acting as buttress for Kimble, and Barry watching on his own. After a while, an old whiskered seal pushed its head above the water and yowled. It did this several times, each time it passed. Without glancing at Meg or at his daughter, Barry watched for the old seal to come around, to surface once again. Then he arched his back and pitched a desperate plea timed to harmonize with the seal's. It achieved its mark perfectly. Kimble laughed and laughed--one joyous shout colliding into another. Meg was surrounded by noise: the seal's bark, Barry's echo, Kimble's laughter. She was surprised at how easily grief and delight mingled their sounds. * * * At an uptown restaurant with her mother, Meg put a hard roll on her bread plate, unwrapped the foil wrapper over a single pad of sweet butter, and announced in an even tone that Jerry had died three weeks before, had essentially drowned in the fluid produced by his own lungs. "It's certainly a shame," said Charlotte. "But I don't honestly know what to say. This was inevitable from the start. Am I right?" Immediately, Meg called up Libby's advice: "Don't let the old dame get away with it." Meg had been seeing Libby twice a week for the past nine months. Libby was herself "an old dame," although Meg did not know how old. She had received her training, the specifics of which Meg could not quite recall, during the second half of her life. On a single-minded quest to get Meg to tell her mother off, Libby tempted her by describing the elevated states of mind she would achieve once the deed was done. Meg had made it a mission to negotiate a compromise between Libby's advice and her own sense of what could be borne. In session after session, Meg had articulated in precise terms why she could not go beyond a certain point with Charlotte, a widow whose only child was Meg. "What are you protecting her for?" Libby had snapped. "She can take it. Her life is just dandy. She's a fortunate woman. It's your life that's wanting." The answer that had sprung to Meg's mind--"She's old"--was the one prohibited answer. At the restaurant, Charlotte busied herself with buttering her roll, then pushing small objects--bud vase, cut-glass salt shaker--about the table. Meg watched. "I'm sorry if I sound harsh, Meg, but you took on Jerry as a dying man, and now he's died. What do you reasonably want me to say?" "Nothing," responded Meg. Their Caesar salads had come. It's only once a month, Meg thought. These fucking lunches, she thought, making sure to savor the silent pronunciation of "fucking," are only once a month. Yet she could already hear Libby during their next session, "Whaddya tell her for? It's none of her business about Jerry. Your life is none of her business." Then she would calm down, assume the role of a real therapist. "I wonder what you wanted from her," she would say, her heart clearly not in it. "I wonder what you wanted to get from her in that moment." For years, Charlotte had not understood Meg's commitment to REACH, to putting herself out for dying strangers. Several times she had suggested that Meg might be trying to fill a void. ("Just drop her a little hint what void you're trying to fill," Libby had advised. "She'll run for the hills, I guarantee it.") "Jerry was a wonderful man," Meg said. "An amazing man, actually." Despite her effort to prevent it, her voice shook. Charlotte adjusted herself in her seat. She sat half-up, smoothed out the back of her skirt, a Chanel, and sat down again. Meg looked at the skirt that fell evenly over her mother's lap. So much of it came down to clothes with Meg and Charlotte. When Meg was growing up in New York, in the same Park Avenue apartment where Charlotte lived now, her mother's life was dominated by clothes. When as a child Meg thought about her mother, she thought of clothes and of accessories. More specifically, she thought of department stores, those vast and twinkling shrines to capitalism that beckoned her mother over and again. Charlotte entered the Fifth Avenue stores with as much purposeful zeal when she was returning a garment as when she was purchasing one. Indeed, for years Meg had thought the purpose of making a purchase was to return it. Meg had told Libby that it would have been one thing if Charlotte indulged only herself, but she was forever buying and returning outfits for Meg. Although her standards for these purchases never varied (she did not consider blends and stayed strictly away from the mauves and pastels that 'backed Meg into the wallpaper'), she always found a reason to make an exchange: patterns that turned out to be printed and not woven through, buttonholes not well-reinforced, darts a shade too obvious, yokes of dubious craftsmanship. Meg despised the clothes her mother selected, but her protests were so energetically squelched that she soon enough lost the will to assert herself. Rather, Meg began to meet up with a disproportionate number of accidents. Iodine covering a cut bled through new linen shorts. A goat from a petting zoo nibbled at the bib of a new woolen jumper. Later, when Meg was older, the billowing skirt of a dress bought for a prom she did not want to attend got caught in the whirling blades of a fan. Libby had reproached Meg for these accidents. These accidents, she claimed, had set the stage for her current inability to simply and crisply speak the truth. "Jerry must have been a wonderful man," Charlotte now said. "Otherwise, you wouldn't have thought so." Meg laid down her fork. She was through eating. Charlotte, who ate slower, looked up. "I don't mean to trivialize your relationship with him. Or what you've been through. I'm sorry if I did that." The word "trivialize" was particularly galling--a deliberate sideswipe into Meg's generation. "Now that it's over, maybe you can take a break for awhile," Charlotte said. "Develop the business a little more. What about stepping up your mail order, like you planned? Everyone who comes into my apartment adores your pots." "Business is good. Orders are up 15% this year. I'm doing fine." "Well, then it's a particularly good time to branch out. Success begets success. Unless, of course, you don't want to. Maybe you're not interested in that kind of scale." "I'm not, actually." "Ambition is not the most important thing, is it? That's the area in which your father was so excessive. Ambition. I suppose it was a typical failing for the times. Men then didn't understand ambition isn't everything." "Excuse me. They do now?" Charlotte removed her napkin to the table and smoothed it out. "Please, Meg." She turned her attention to Madison Avenue. Their table was placed just inside French doors that opened onto the sidewalk. Charlotte always chose to be seated right in the midst of some pedestrian artery. During their winter lunches, she liked to be placed along the main aisle so she could see the maitre d' usher couples and small groups to their seats. No matter how closely passersby might represent the typical looks of her own milieu, Charlotte would sight each one with the glee of a child spotting a friendly animal along the road. The members of her species intrigued her, and her enthusiasm for them contributed to her youthful appearance. She was 73 and highly impressionable. "So when are you leaving?" Charlotte was going on a cruise to the Galapagos. She was going with Ida Tree, a neighbor in her apartment building, and Ida's daughter, Juliet, who had just gotten a divorce. In repeated phone conversations, Charlotte had stressed how rejuvenating the trip would be for Juliet, who had lost her White Plains house because of her husband's slick lawyer. Charlotte opened her purse and removed a trip itinerary and a brochure showcasing the cruise. She pointed out some pictures of birds and animals with startling appearances. One sea bird had bright blue webbed feet. "Wow," said Meg. "This is going to be really great." "Are you sure we can't entice you? It's not too late, you know." "No. No, thank you. This is my big fair season, remember? Sullivan County, Rhinebeck, Somerset. It's my busiest time." "We won't be going for a month. Juliet would be thrilled if you came." "Somerset is in a month. I really can't." Meg knew Juliet. Ida Tree's daughter had found a way to live in politely cultivated angst. To her, female friends were ones who would cooperate in an endless disclosure of marital humiliations. Juliet's ideal confidante would be a woman whose husband's slick lawyer had just robbed her of her White Plains house. "Can't you skip Somerset one year? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You know I'd help you out. I just got a surprise premium." Here Charlotte did not speak; she trilled. "Mom, you were just talking about my developing the business. I can't take off that kind of time." With some effort, Meg probably could make the arrangements to go along. Yet although the Galapagos held for her a rich and exotic appeal, she could think of nothing more prosaic than listening to Charlotte, Ida, and Juliet discussing past and fleeing husbands. It was easy enough for Meg to envision the scene: She would remain silent, politely electing not to allude to the condition of her invisibility in their presence. "I suppose not," conceded Charlotte. Her voice abruptly lost its timbre. Without fail, this attenuated version of Charlotte's voice snaked its way into Meg's blood. ("Why do I feel it so strongly?" Meg had demanded of Libby. "How can even the suggestion of her sadness cripple me?" Meg had expected Libby to point out that Charlotte's manipulations never missed their mark, that she was a guileful old broad who left bodies by the roadside. Rather, she had leaned forward in her leather swivel chair, steadied herself with the toe of her high heel shoe, and confided, "Because you feel so sorry for yourself.") "It's not just the fairs," Meg claimed now. "I've already started with another client. A man with a daughter. It should be a very different kind of experience. I guess it's my way of dealing with Jerry. I know. I'm a little crazed." Charlotte's eyes were hidden behind the laminated card of the dessert menu. Meg expected her to remark on the term "client." She had once commented that in the past only lawyers had clients. Now manicurists and party clowns and everyone on God's earth had them. But Charlotte was distracted. "I'm having the key lime pie," she said, "and you're having the white chocolate mousse so I can have a taste." "Fine," agreed Meg. She smiled. When the mousse arrived, white and brown chocolate shavings touting its extravagance, Meg offered her mother the first taste. She leaned over to poise the spoon within reach of Charlotte's mouth, a gesture so long abandoned that both their faces blazed. At once, they began a frenzied discussion of mousses they had tasted over the years. They were in perfect accord; they extolled and dismissed the very same mousses until the waiter came and placed between them a silver tray bearing the check and two Godiva chocolates.

What People are saying about this

Alix Kates Shukman
A lively and satisfying novel that takes a fresh, up-to-the-minute look at the ever-fascinating theme of mothers and daughters. I cheered to see characters who might have been villains turn on the page into complicated human beings--to me one of the chief pleasures of good fiction. (Alix Kates Shulman, author of A Good Enough Daughter
Michael Downing
A novel about being delivered - freed - from our expectations. In prose that is confident and spare, often wry, and never sentimental, Patricia Grossman shows us how one women comes to terms with her impulse to protect those she loves.

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