Michael Lowenthal's fourth novel, The Paternity Test, is a beautifully told story that brings myriad social issues to the forefront and also manages to be a literary page-turner.
Lowenthal's work is hard to categorize. His first book, The Same Embrace, told the story of identical twins, one of whom came out as gay while the other became an Orthodox Jew. Avoidance explored the cloistered worlds of the Amish and the protagonist's long-ago summer boys' camp. Charity Girl took up a little known chapter of American history when women were incarcerated during the First World War in a government effort to contain venereal disease.
Versatility is a hallmark of Lowenthal's work, as is the 43-year-old writer's gift for language and depth of character. The Paternity Test gracefully merges gay marriage, Jewish identity, sexuality, the Holocaust, Jewish continuity and sexual fidelity in one story.
Pat Faunce and Stu Nadler have been together for a decade. Pat is a blue blood -- there's a small street named after his family near Plymouth Rock -- and a failed poet who earns his living by writing textbooks. Stu, a dashing airline pilot, is the son of a Holocaust survivor who, as Lowenthal recently described him in a conversation over coffee, "has a boy in every port. But their 'no rules relationship' is starting to wear on them. So in a 21st century twist on saving their 'marriage,' they decide to have a baby."
The issue of Jewish continuity following the Holocaust, with its imperative to reproduce, further complicates the story. Stu's sister Rina recently married to Richard, a nice Jewish boy, and cannot conceive, while Stu also feels the pressure of passing on the Nadler genes.
Lowenthal, the grandson of a rabbi, has a multi-pronged answer when asked if he considers himself a Jewish writer:
I was raised in a [Conservative] Jewish household, and three of my four novels prominently feature Jewish characters and Judaism-related plot elements, so yes, obviously, I'm a Jewish writer. But I don't feel I pick my style or sensibility particularly consciously. I'm reminded of a remark by a gay writer when he was asked if there is such a thing as a gay sensibility, and, if so, what effect it has on the arts. He said, 'No, there is no such thing as a gay sensibility, and yes, it has an immense impact on the arts.' Maybe the same thing could be said of Jewish sensibility?
Stu and Pat's search for a surrogate begins, as does an intense exploration of Jewish identity. After visiting various agencies and trolling surrogate sites on the Internet, they settle on a surrogate named Debora Cardozo Neuman. In Stu Nadler's surprisingly traditional mindset, Jewish babies must be born to Jewish mothers and Debora fits the bill, albeit in a very unusual way. A native of Brazil, she comes from a converso background -- Jews who practiced Catholicism outwardly yet clung to their Judaism. By Debora's generation Judaism had morphed into a set of quirky habits like lighting candles on Friday nights and mysterious dietary restrictions that eschew eating pork or mixing meat with milk until the community uncovers its Jewish roots.
Lowenthal elaborates that "The whole story of the conversos raises questions of who gets to decide who is a Jew. Is it more important that they were genetically Jewish 500 years ago or that, when given the cultural opportunity, they affirmatively decided to be Jewish."
At first skeptical, Stu is very taken with Debora's story. Lowenthal raises the stakes even higher when Rina and Richard decide to adopt and Richard loses himself in the "minutiae of Judaism":
Richard pays attention to legalistic questions that shouldn't trump choosing to raise a child in a Jewish home. For him it's not enough. It's better if the child is converted shortly after birth to avoid the possibility of having a mamzer.
A mamzer is a child considered to be illegitimate if born to a woman who has conceived a child outside of her marriage. Like the plight of the aguna -- a woman who is legally stranded in a marriage because a husband refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce or a get -- mamzerim have no control over their fate or their standing in the community. It should be noted that the liberal branches of Judaism have done away with the mamzer status, acknowledging it as too cruel to an innocent child. Yet Richard adheres to ultra-Orthodox tradition and in the process destroys his marriage.
"The book," says Lowenthal, "is so much about looking from the outside with regard to parenthood, family, sexuality and Judaism. Sexuality is also very fluid in the book, which takes on an intimate situation. But intimacy is so much more important than gender and sexuality. Intimacy has its own momentum in admittedly dangerous ways sometimes. Pat in particular longs for a life he thought he might have had with a woman he dated in college."
Place is also important to Lowenthal. Pat and Stu relocate to a house on Cape Cod very similar to the one in which Lowenthal spent his summers. And Lowenthal developed an affinity for Brazil -- where the fictional Debora grew up -- after spending time there in an artist's residency. His Portuguese sounds flawless to this Spanish speaker's ear, and I ask him about the word saudade -- a word that Debora uses when describing Pat and Stu's need for a child.
"Saudade describes a deep longing for something that can never be recaptured," Lowenthal explained. "It's about the immigrant who can't return to his homeland because so much has changed. It's the fantasy of family -- the mythical idea of who they are."
There's no question that a feeling of saudade permeates The Paternity Test. Each of these characters has their own saudade in longing for a baby. And their complex desires and wanting irrevocably change life for Stu, Pat and Debora in ways they could never imagine.