Off the Shelf: Unexpected consequences

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Any choice a person makes can result in unexpected consequences. After all, no one can predict the future. But some choices are more fraught than others, for example, surrogate motherhood or having an affair. Those actions occur in two recent novels: Jacqueline Friedland’s “He Gets That From Me” (SparkPress) explores whether blood or love makes one a true parent, while the results of an affair not only affect the spouses involved, but their eldest child in “The Tenderest of Strings” by Steven Schwartz (Regal House Publishing).

In “He Gets That From Me,” Jewish Maggie Fisher has already made several bad decisions by the time she decides to become a surrogate mother in 2007. After dropping out of college, she traveled from the New York City area to Arizona. Working in retail as a cashier is not her idea of a career, but she’s trying to put money aside to go back to school to become a teacher. That becomes more difficult after she becomes pregnant. Her boyfriend Nick, who is also Jewish, is ready for them to marry, but Maggie finds herself unable to commit. She loves Nick and their young son, Wyatt, but marriage doesn’t feel right at that moment. When Maggie sees an ad for someone looking for a surrogate mother, she decides to explore her options. Nick doesn’t approve, but Maggie knows the money will allow her to fulfil her dream of becoming a teacher. 

The non-Jewish Donovan and his husband, Chip, are the gay couple that chooses Maggie to carry their children. Both men fertilized the eggs of an unknown donor, two of which are placed in Maggie and result in the birth of twins. Teddy is clearly the son of Chip, while Kai resembles Donovan. Then in 2018, when the boys are 10, Donovan sends away for genealogy results to continue a project the boys did for school. Yet, something is not right: while the results clearly show that Teddy is Chip’s son, Kai is not related to anyone in the family, including his half-brother, even though they should have had the same mother. Against Chip’s wishes, Donovan searches for an answer, one that upsets not only this family, but Maggie’s.

Most readers will figure out the plot twist, but that’s not the most important part of the novel. That’s Friedland’s exploration of what it means to be a parent. The chapters focus alternately on Maggie and Donovan, showing their strengths and weaknesses. Readers may find themselves rooting for one or the other, something that makes this work perfect for book clubs since there is no absolute right and wrong, only humans trying to do their best – sometimes succeeding and other times failing. The final chapter, which features a different character, puts the plot into perspective and makes this novel well worth reading.

While “He Gets That From Me” focuses on two families, “The Tenderest of Strings” concentrates on the Rosenfeld family. Reuben and his wife, Ardith, recently moved from Chicago to a small town in Colorado, where Reuben now owns the town’s local newspaper. Part of the reason they moved is that the cleaner air is supposed to be better for their younger son, Jamie, who has asthma. They also hope it will help their teenage son, Harry, whose antisocial behavior scares them. While Reuben spends his days learning the ins-and-outs of a community newspaper, Ardith struggles to discover her place since she’s unable to find work. It doesn’t help that the old house they bought needs a great deal of work; although Reuben has promised to do the repairs himself, he never finds time. Then Ardith has an affair, which, at first, goes unnoticed by her husband, until a hit-and-run accident reveals secrets that might destroy the Rosenfeld family. 

Schwartz does an excellent job showing a 20-year-old marriage unraveling. In addition, he portrays how parents can feel useless when it comes to helping their children, particularly Harry who has more and more difficulty in school. Reuben is Jewish while Ardith is not, and that comes to play a role in their new feelings for each other. “The Tenderest of Strings” is a morally complex work that explores life’s grey areas. Both main characters are deeply flawed, which makes them unappealing at times, although that also makes the story feel true to life. Book clubs whose members enjoy dissecting relationships will find much to discuss.