A Theory of Relativity: A Novel

A Theory of Relativity: A Novel

by Jacquelyn Mitchard


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060836931
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/18/2011
Pages: 398
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.


Madison, Wisconsin

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A. in English, Rockford College, 1973

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.

Reading Group Guide

Few writers have captured contemporary relationships as succinctly and honestly as Jacquelyn Mitchard. Over and over again she shows us that the experience of love is messy, trying, complicated, heartbreaking, terrifying -- and utterly worth it.

At the heart of this story is the love between Georgia and Ray, two characters whom we never meet, but who provide the impetus for the novel's chain of events. Their death brings together two vastly different families, each battling overwhelming grief; each fiercely determined to shape the destiny of the couple's child. Mitchard deftly brings a variety of family issues into play here: adoption and single parenting, marriage and divorce, physical and emotional maturation. With a sharp eye for detail, Mitchard points out the challenges of daily life with children -- the endless unmatched socks and baby spoons, the tantrums and stranger anxiety, the colds and sleepless nights -- while also showing us the unmitigated joy of being part of a child's world. And, as we experience along with the McKenna and Nye families the wrenching twists and turns of a convoluted legal system, she shows us how loss, anger, fear, and mistrust pull us apart -- and how courage, love, and honesty bring us together.

The term "relativity" has many meanings, all of which come into play in this novel. But whether one refers to Einstein's theory concerning nature's most fundamental laws, or the seemingly arbitrary rules that bind one family to another, Mitchard's most powerful message is revealed in the person of Keefer Kathryn Nye McKenna: in her intelligence and honesty, in her humor and optimism. "Related" to her parents or not, sheis happy, and she is loved. That's not relative, that's real.

Discussion Questions

  • In whose home do you think Keefer would be happiest -- Gordon's or the Nye's? On what would you base your decision? What makes a good parent? What makes a happy home?

  • Do you think Mitchard's portrayal of Diane as a mother and as a born-again Christian is a balanced one? How does she make Diane a sympathetic character?

  • There are many kinds of single parents in the novel: Gordon, Delia, Craig (after Delia's death), the birth mothers of both Gordon and Georgia. How would you use this book to argue for or against single parenting?

  • Gordon is first introduced as a highly analytic person, one who thinks that "life could be lived like an experiment conducted in keeping with scientific method, that a certain set of results could be obtained and, once obtained, repeated." Eventually he comes to realize "the pressure of the human hand behind the instruments." (p. 11) How do Gordon's relationships with Keefer, Lindsay, his Aunt Nora, and his mother bring about his own emotional development?

  • Discuss Gordon's decision to drop his petition to adopt Keefer. Was it the right one, given the circumstances? How much of it was based on his relationship with Georgia? How much do you think was based on the difficulties he would encounter as a single father?

  • Discuss how the phrase, "a theory of relativity" touches on the novel's themes: family, heredity, adoption, and parental love, to name a few. Can you think of any other issues this title suggests?

  • Do you agree with Judge Sayward's decision to deny Gordon's petition for adoption based on his own status as an adopted child? As a judge was she compelled to give a literal interpretation of the law, or do you think she should have assumed that Gordon's status was the same as any other blood relative of Georgia's?

  • Discuss the possibility that Ray and Georgia's accident was a suicide. How does it make you feel about Ray?

  • Where do you stand on the nature versus nurture debate? Do you think your personality has been determined genetically or by the situation in which you grew up? How do the characters of Georgia, Gordon, Alex, and Keefer support or contradict your beliefs?

  • In the last chapter, Mitchard offers us a glimpse of Keefer as a ten-year-old. Did she "turn out" the way you expected? How do you think Keefer would have been different if Delia had lived and become her mother?

  • Customer Reviews

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    A Theory of Relativity 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
    PermaSwooned on LibraryThing 29 days ago
    I really enjoy her writing, because her characters are really well drawn. She does have a way of wrapping things up very neatly and a bit oddly in the last 2 books of hers that I've read, but I'll keep reading. A very good exploration of some of the loopholes in the law...in this case, adoption law, but really there are quite a few out there. I'd enjoy a conversation with a number of these characters, although I'm not crazy about the way Gordy treated women, Keefer excepted.
    mattrutherford on LibraryThing 29 days ago
    Ugh. As maudlin and sappy as possible.
    sweetiegherkin on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    This book explores questions surrounding family, particularly what it means to be family: is a matter of genes or relationships? For anyone who has ever had to deal with the bureaucracy surrounding adoption specifically or custody cases in general, this book chronicles the range of emotions felt by the adults trying to obtain permanent care for the child they love. The book also delves into the nature of grief, describing the various ways different people choose to deal with the loss of a loved one. The writing is well done, but not spectacular, and the narrative voice suddenly changes at the very end, which I'm still not sure if I really like. At the end of the novel, all loose ends are tied up and there is an ostensibly happy ending for all, which is a nice conclusion to have from time to time.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    honestCW More than 1 year ago
    while it was a good story, I fail to see why current fiction writers can not tell their story without political bashing, hate and name calling. Another writer's name is marked off my list.
    MaryVista More than 1 year ago
    This book studies the relationships of a family structure that is repeated millions of times across America, and yet, twists of fate leave the reader unsettled because it could happen easily, to those they know. I read this book a couple of years ago, and have recommended it again and again. It is compelling, and leaves one thinking of the characters and their plight long after the book is finished.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I thought this was an absolutely enthralling book. Maybe I have more of an interest in it because I am adopted by my father and we had such a close relationship that we are more like blood than any other family member. I think it's wonderfully written and very very interesting. It's thought-provocing and it tuggs at your heart. I couldn't put it down, then gave it to my friend yesterday and she's half way through it.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    There's always something very special about hearing an author read his or her own work. Perhaps it's that the author brings a depth of understanding to the words that a voice performer no matter how gifted cannot. Whatever the case, Jacquelyn Mitchard offers listeners a memorable experience as she reads her story of family love. This is a topic with which the author is quite familiar, as was evidenced in her immensely popular 'The Deep End of the Ocean.' This time out a child is once again the focus. We begin with a tragedy - an auto accident in which Georgia and her husband are killed. Twenty-four year old Gordon McKenna, Georgia's brother, and his parents immediately take care of Georgia's baby daughter, Keefer. They plan to raise the child. However, there's another family that also loves and wants Keefer - the parents of Georgia's husband. Thus begins a tug of war for custody. As it happens, both Georgia and Gordon were adopted as babies. Hence, Keefer's guardianship becomes a legal issue - who is really family? Listen and shed a tear or two. - Gail Cooke
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I personally felt that the story had instances which were superfluous. Mitchared probably thinks she was being cute and sharp when she gives extraneous phrases as to what and what, but she just turned out cocky to me! It looked like the author enjoyed rambling rather than sticking to the essence of the plot. Iam sure that the book will appeal to a few but when i passed this book on to a friend and she asked me how it was, all i could do was give a lopsided grimace ( well i was suffering from a wisdom tooth surgery) and saý 'hmmmmmm...'''. The next time i spoke to her, she did not rave about it.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    That was great read. I have to admit the ending was a bit of a stretch, but all things are possible. I found the premise of the book heartwrenching. It was so interesting that the Nye family was using the fact that Georgia and Gordon were adopted as a reason why Keefer should be adopted by the Nye's! Such twisted people! They truly believed that what they were doing was the best for Keefer. Parts of the book have stayed with me. For example, when Gordon said 'They said I'm not your son.' and Gordon saying to Delia. 'Keefer, her name is Keefer' Also, when Gordon said to the lawyer,'Don't tell my Mom and Dad!' refering to the Will just before the services. It was so poingnant of Mitchard to show how the adopted children felt so left out when they heard how so and so looked just like so and so. I'd never thought of that before. And the point made in the story of how everyone really needs a sibling. I appreciated both of my siblings, Blood related or not, more after I closed the back cover. Bravo to Mitchard! Another wonderful work.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This book kept my interest with it's fast paced legal and emotional action. As interesting as Deep End of the Ocean with the same level of emotional involvement. The ending got a bit short-changed, but it was an interesting twist.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Jacquelyn Mitchard, the Oprah anointed author of 'The Deep End Of The Ocean,' opens her third novel with a sure grabber: 'They died instantly.' Once again using family tragedy as a springboard Ms. Mitchard has created an emotionally charged work filled with very real characters who are compelled to reassess their long held beliefs in love and forgiveness. Gordon McKenna, a handsome 24-year-old bon vivant, has cared for his niece, one-year-old Keefer, as his sister, Georgia, battles breast cancer. The unthinkable occurs when Georgia and her husband , Ray Nye, are killed in an auto accident. Gordon and his parents quite naturally assume that they will be Keefer's guardians. However, Ray's parents believe otherwise. There is little time for each family to mourn their losses before an ugly and protracted custody battle ensues. The suit is muddied by the fact that Georgia and Gordon were both adopted, thus, by state law are not blood relatives. Ms. Mitchard who has adopted five children and was once involved in a custody battle draws on personal experience to craft this heart wrenching tale. It's a two hanky read, and undoubtedly another bestseller for this author.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I am so glad I took a recomendation to read this excellent story. I was unsure till the very end how it would turn out and so nice to have a pleasing ending. I believe the characters were well developed. I did not find that there were too many of them - I mean people come into your life and don' t stay, but everyone leaves an impression that shapes a portion of you and generally for the good. I would recommend to all my reading friends. JDL 1/6/17