One theory about small earthquakes is that they act as little release valves along fault lines, making the larger, more cataclysmic ruptures less likely. In Meredith Maran’s debut novel, “A Theory of Small Earthquakes,’’ these manageable seismic shifts serve as a metaphor for the human connection, how we sometimes, as one character puts it, feel the tectonic plates of past and future colliding as we learn, grow, and ultimately, move on.
“A Theory of Small Earthquakes’’ traces two decades in the relationship between a young writer with intimacy issues named Alison and a free-spirited young artist named Zoe. Initially, the novel, which is divided in three sections, has the glossy veneer of chick lit, its plot driven by the romantic relationship between the two women. Maran, a journalist with several nonfiction books to her credit, moves the story right along, chronicling the women’s transformation from friends to committed partners like a kind of slow dance of attraction almost banal in its normalcy - movies, thrift shopping, political arguments, dinners of Top Ramen. Maran’s writing is generally direct with lots of dialogue and unencumbered by clever wordplay, frequent earthquake metaphors aside.
However, this intriguing, timely yarn gracefully brings up a number of provocative topical issues, most importantly the changing dynamics of what it means to be a family. And along the way, Maran skillfully weaves in telling details of the time and place in which the story evolves, recalling the social and political turbulence of the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1980s and 1990s. While, the description of the feminism class in which Alison and Zoe meet is nearly undone by caricature, Maran’s analysis of one neighborhood’s gentrification is spot on. The persuasive journalist comes out in her descriptions of tilting backyard cottages being “skylighted, and landscaped, interiors by feng-shui, kitchens by Sub-Zero . . . peeling Victorians that once housed sixties communes and food conspiracies had been sand-blasted to the bone.’’
Part One of the book follows Alison’s transition in her senior year of college from unquestioning heterosexual to comfortable lesbian in the company of the nurturing, self-assured Zoe. But as their relationship matures, Alison’s maternal longings emerge, and she wrestles with “baby lust, beating it down one day, struggling to fit it into her life with Zoe the next.’’ An expensive, painful, and frustrating foray into artificial insemination begins to drive a wedge between the two, and during a period of disconnect with Zoe, Alison finds herself drawn to the sweet, sincere, and direct Mark, who offers a different kind of stability. When Alison finds herself pregnant, the opportunity for a “normal’’ life with Mark seems too good to pass up.
In Part Two, Alison grapples with the American dream of career, house, husband, and child, only to find she really can’t have it all. “The exciting, self-realized, self-fulfilling existence that feminism had promised her had morphed into a replica of every working mother’s treadmill life.’’ Zoe reenters her life as her child’s babysitter, and the two women, Mark, and baby Corey begin to evolve into a very different kind of family.
Part Three skips ahead 13 years, and Corey has developed into a troubled adolescent, neglecting his studies, cutting basketball practice, lying to his parents. Corey’s behavior puts a significant strain on Alison and Mark’s marriage, shaking their unusual family dynamic to the core and threatening to dislodge a secret that could unravel all their lives.
When Zoe is confronted with a major health scare, Maran wisely focuses on the details of human compassion rather than the drama of the crisis, which could have sent the novel into overdrive. She lets this intimate, personal story play out in its own time, without pat ending or tidy wrap-up, extending beyond the final page. And considering the recent ruling in California, moving the controversy of same-sex marriage closer to the Supreme Court, Maran’s novel effectively reminds us that this possible seismic social shift is really less a “hot topic’’ than a question of deeply human needs.
Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at Karencampbell4@rcn.com.