It’s primal and close to universal—the need to nurture, to parent, to provide a safe haven for a child while opening doors to the world beyond. Without that drive, in at least a fair-sized proportion of the human race, there would be no future, no hope. But when a couple wishes to do exactly that, in a healthy, stable, mature, reasoned way and biology fights back, it opens the door to painful longing and frustration beyond description. Jennifer Gilmore has found the words to voice that pain in her new novel that reads much like a memoir. After years of trying to conceive, using every bit of technology available to modern science, Jesse and Ramon, Gilmore’s young protagonist couple, decide to adopt and they embark on a journey with a whole new set of obstacles, frustrations, and agonizing choices. They navigate the muddy waters of the open adoption system acknowledging the angst without losing their senses of humor or their commitment to one another. They worry, as prospective parents generally do, about child-rearing issues: how their relationship will change, how to integrate extended family, what to do about religious identity in a mixed-religion marriage, what role the child’s birth mother will fill, all the while fearing that the deep, painful analysis of each issue may be for naught. Gilmore scrutinizes and dissects the open adoption system with its inconsistencies and its sometimes not-quite-above-board cast of characters but refrains from cynicism; too much hope resides in every word for real cynicism to take hold. When Jesse’s single sister announces her own unplanned pregnancy, all the issues are thrown into stark relief and emotions threaten to boil over but the hope, the deep, abiding, sincere, genuine hope, the hope that is a beacon in the uncertain darkness, never wanes.
The novel is based on Gilmore’s real-life experience with the open adoption system and the writing is so real, so immediate, at times so raw even in its poignant humor, that the reader goes through an emotional journey along with the characters, experiencing highs and lows, doubts and confidence, disappointment and relief. It’s the kind of reading-roller-coaster one experiences when reading a passionate love story and, although the object of the passion may be as yet unborn, this truly is a love story in so many subtle ways.
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What is the Story?
Courtesy of Scribner's Reading Group Guide
1.Discuss “The Mothers” we meet in the novel and Jesse’s relationships with each of them.
2.Jesse and Ramon find themselves discussing race and drug and alcohol use as they make their way through the adoption process. Talk about the pom-pom exercise they did in Raleigh.
3.Talk about Jesse and Lucy’s relationship with Claudine. Lucy calls her “practically my mother” (p.116). What role did Claudine play in their lives? Why were they so close to Claudine and what does this say about their relationship with their own mother?
4.Heritage plays an important role in The Mothers; Jesse knows the precise details of her dog Harriet’s family tree (p. 61). What are Ramon’s plans for teaching their child about his heritage? Why does this upset Jesse? What does she feel she has to offer?
5.Jesse takes some time away and meets Anita upstate. Describe Jesse and Anita’s time together. Were you surprised by what happened between them?
6.In their Birthmother Letter Jesse and Ramon describe their interests. Revisit the passage on p. 112 that shows Tiffany and Crystal’s suggested edits. What did you think when you read this?
7.Jesse was raised Jewish. How does her religion play a part in this novel? Think about Lydia and how Jesse felt in their first informational session with her (p.135).
8.While Lucy is in Belize, she calls Jesse and they discuss happiness on p. 158-159. What makes each of them happy? How do you think “happy moments” are different from sustained happiness? Compare this with what Jesse considers to be the opposite of happiness (the bottom of p. 196). Do you agree?
9.Throughout the novel there are flashbacks to Jesse’s struggle with cancer. How would you compare what she went through then with what she is going through now?
10.Lydia’s home visit to Jesse and Ramon’s Brooklyn apartment is a significant moment. How would you feel if you had to host a near-stranger in your home charged with evaluating your living space and its appropriateness for a child? How would you prepare?
11.The moment Jesse sees Lucy for the first time in years, Lucy has physically changed. What is different about her? How does Jesse react? Imagine yourself in Jesse’s position; what would you have done?
12.Michelle and Jacob’s party in the Catskills is filled with children. When Jesse finds Ramon alone in the gazebo, what does he tell her (see p. 208-209)? How does this effect what she’s been feeling? Were you surprised by Ramon’s reaction?
13.In Part 3, Jesse begins to speak with the birthmothers. What happens in their phone calls? What did you think of Katrina? What does Jesse’s online research tell her about these women? Imagine going through the same process, but without the Internet. Do you think it would be harder or easier? Why?
14.The adoption process puts considerable strain on Jesse and Ramon’s relationship. What was their relationship like before they decided they wanted children? How does it evolve? What do you see in their future?