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Book Review

‘The Paternity Test’ by Michael Lowenthal

As debates about gay marriage continue to rage, Michael Lowenthal, a creative-writing instructor and author of the acclaimed 2007 novel “Charity Girl,’’ enters the ring with a focused, mostly poignant examination of a gay couple’s struggle to father a child via a surrogate mother.

On the surface, Pat and Stu are a bit of an odd couple. Pat, a poetry major who now writes textbooks, is steady, reliable, and cerebral regarding love and romance (his sexual awakening was even well thought-out: “A feature and its opposite could equally entice me because, in the end, it wasn’t boys’ particulars that moved me but their fundamental maleness.”). Stu is by far the more flamboyant and carefree of the two, a brash, extroverted airline pilot with a history of reckless promiscuity in New York City.

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As the novel opens, both men, it seems, are seeking a deeper bond and a more settled life, so they have moved from Manhattan to a cottage on Cape Cod where Pat spent his summers as a boy. To cement their commitment, Stu and Pat decide to pursue parenthood, eschewing adoption for the surrogate route. After interviewing a revolving door of unsuitable candidates, they discover Debora, a charming Brazilian woman married to an American man, Danny. Debora and Danny have a young daughter, Paula, but for reasons that remain secret until the end of the book, they have decided not to try for another child of their own.

The bulk of the narrative chronicles the frustrating complications involved in Debora’s insemination attempts. Because Stu’s Jewish background is important to him, they want him to serve as the donor in order to continue the family line. As the problems mount, however, the bickering increases and leads to multiple fights among Pat, Stu, Debora, and Danny, as well as a surprising case of infidelity.

Lowenthal’s snappy dialogue moves the story along and reveals complexities among the characters, and Pat’s first-person narration provides insight into the many often-conflicting motivations behind parenthood: “Whether to have them: that was a choice. And when, and with whom. But wanting them? Wasn’t that just an ore you had within? At least that’s how it was for me: not chosen but discovered, uncovered.”

Throughout the book, Pat struggles with his “bedrock contradictions: my craving for belonging, my hatred of that craving; my want to break away from family, my want to make my own” — while also navigating Stu’s ambivalence about the logistics of fatherhood. After all, thinks Pat, “fatherhood required more than the siring of a child,” and he is unsure of Stu’s full commitment beyond that point.

Eventually, Pat’s misgivings cause a host of new complications involving not just Stu, but Debora and Danny as well, and Pat’s relationship with Stu is truly put to the test. The parallel story line about Stu’s family and his sister’s struggles with fertility and adoption offers a useful counterpoint to the main plot, where issues of family, identity, desire, and responsibility collide.

On the whole, Lowenthal handles these many strands with aplomb. The occasional burst of sappiness and cloying prose (“Poof! Like a candle lit to cancel out a stink, honesty made our fears go up in smoke.”) invades but does not overwhelm the narrative, and most readers will root for a pleasant resolution for Pat and Stu. It may not be a traditional happy ending, but considering the many travails they face on their journey, it’s satisfying enough.

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus
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