A young couple must deal with both grief and transformation when one of them becomes the guardian of an orphaned infant and a 6-year-old. The fact that the new parents of this instant family are two gay men is a secondary element of this emotional saga and that is part of the brilliance of Judith Frank’s “All I Love and Know.’’
Matt Greene, a 26-year-old graphic designer, fled New York City’s single scene to move in with Daniel Rosen, six years older, an editor at a college alumni magazine in Northampton. They have been together four years in a supportive and loving relationship, but neither is seeking a conventional lifestyle nor the trials of raising a family.
A terrorist bomb in a Jerusalem cafe foists both crushing loss and parenthood upon them. Daniel’s identical twin brother and sister-in-law are killed in the explosion. The novel opens with Matt shepherding a devastated Daniel through the traumatic flight from Massachusetts to Israel, where he will have to assist his parents in identifying his brother’s body.
Matt knows and mourns for Daniel’s twin and his wife, but when they land in Israel, he is instantly on the outside, doors repeatedly closed in his face. Aside from not being Jewish, he is not a family member, and his role is clearly to support Daniel’s grief, not to experience it himself.
At nearly every turn, the novel eschews the predictable conflicts. Daniel’s mother doesn’t like Matt but only because he doesn’t measure up to Daniel’s previous partner. She considers Matt superficial “eye candy” and an intellectual lightweight. That there is a germ of truth in this adds tension to the story: How insubstantial will Matt prove to be and will he measure up to the responsibilities of parenthood? Neither Matt, nor Daniel, seems to be sure.
The first obstacle is getting the children out of Israel. Although the couple’s will specifically names Daniel as guardian, Israeli law doesn’t automatically accept this. The children’s Israeli grandparents initially contest the guardianship, and Daniel expects bias. “I’m sure . . . that living with two queers is exactly what the Israeli state thinks of as for the good of the children,” he says, girding himself for the fight.
Frank again sidesteps the predictable. “I am less interested in your being homosexual than in the way you handle the conflicts that arise around it,” the Israeli caseworker tells him, nailing Daniel’s newly overdeveloped concern with what everyone is thinking of him.
In Northampton, where they ultimately raise the children, the community of artists, lesbians, and academics offers only support.
The real antagonist, and threat to the security of this fledging new family, is Daniel’s grief. His emotions at losing his twin brother are excruciatingly real, disabling, and affected by the violence of the terrorist act — something we’ll learn more about in detail.
His grief distances him from Matthew and also gives him a disproportionate amount of power in the relationship. Daniel is the sufferer. Whatever trials Matt might be experiencing as a partially stay-at-home dad seem to be discounted. His noteworthy transformation is ignored.
Frank renders this story with an intimate knowledge of her settings, Jerusalem and Northampton, with the tender and trying moments of child rearing. and often, with humor. All of the characters, down to the bit-playing caseworker, Hebrew instructor, and baby Noam, come alive on the page.
The book is not always an easy or fast read, but a thoughtful one. Frank delves into politics, both on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and on gay rights. The first is handled with a deft hand, the second, with almost a sleight of hand, making the impact of this novel, which is ultimately about the resilience of love, all the more powerful.Jan Brogan, author of four novels, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or on Twitter @janbrogan.