Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Review: Other People's Children by R. J. Hoffmann

Parenthood. Some people become parents biologically while others become parents through adoption. Some people are amazing parents while others really struggle. What makes a parent? And perhaps more importantly, what makes a good parent as versus a bad parent? Is it love? Is it some other intangible?

Gail and Jon Durbin are beaten down by Gail's repeated miscarriages. They have arranged their whole lives to welcome a child, buying a house in the suburbs and setting up a nursery but the one thing they can't arrange is a pregnancy that doesn't end in loss and heartbreak. Gail is obsessive about becoming a mother while Jon, remembering his own childhood, is far more ambivalent about fatherhood. After much soul searching though, they decide to adopt. But this is one more process in creating a family that they don't have much control over.

Carli is a pregnant teenager living a couple of towns away. She doesn't have a relationship with the father of her baby any more and she's pretty sure she's not ready to be anyone's mother, especially given the poor role model she has in her own mother, Marla. She wants to go to college and escape her mother and the unhappy life they live. So she decides to give the baby up for adoption and she chooses Gail and Jon to be the baby's parents. Their dreams are coming true even while Marla pressures Carli to keep her baby, thinking perhaps that she can atone for her own failings as a mother by helping raise her grandbaby. What happens to Gail and Jon's dreams if Carli listens to Marla and changes her mind? Who actually is little Maya's family? What lengths will any of them go to to keep this baby?

This novel is both a domestic story about infertility and adoption as well as an on the run thriller. The narration shifts through each of the main characters so that the reader can sympathize with each of them, their hopes, dreams, fears, and motivations. There are right actions and wrong actions here but there's such a moral ambiguity that there's no clear and easy answer. Everyone is right and everyone is wrong. The story is an emotionally packed page turner, heartbreaking and tragic all the way round. If want and love makes a mother, both Gail and Carli are clearly mothers but only one of them can be Maya's mother. Carli's mother Marla is really the only clear villain here. The ending is a bit too perfect and hopeful after the wild ride that comes before it but overall Hoffmann has written an engrossing and moving story about love, adoption, parenthood, and ethics.

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