When Pat and Stu, a gay couple on Cape Cod, decide to have a child, they face a daunting task: They need to find a surrogate mother whom they trust, someone who doesn’t have hesitations about gay parents, and someone who’s Jewish — so their child will be born Jewish. They find Debora, a Brazilian immigrant who already has a child and isn’t prepared to raise another, but wants to “help somebody else make true their dream.”
The pieces fall into place fairly quickly despite the unusual circumstances and the odd collection of personalities: insecure Pat and restless Stu, emotional Debora and her more detached husband, Danny. It takes far longer for the arrangement to come apart. But as physical attractions wax and wane, and personal loyalties shift between the two couples, the plan that once seemed so neat and simple starts to fray. This unusual but believable blending of two unique couples eventually threatens to destroy both relationships.
The narrative, understandably, is something of an emotional roller coaster, one that takes many unexpected turns but never goes off the tracks. And along the way, Lowenthal manages to deal deftly with a huge range of topical issues: interfaith relationships, sibling rivalries, parental expectations, infidelity, the fluidity of desire, and the diversity of Jewish culture.
Lowenthal is the author of three previous novels, including Charity Girl and Avoidance. But in some ways, in The Paternity Test he returns to themes he explored in his 1998 debut, The Same Embrace. While the plot, setting, and characters bear little resemblance to that earlier book—The Same Embrace followed identical twin brothers, one who becomes a gay activist, one who embraces Orthodoxy—The Paternity Test similarly addresses large social issues, particularly around gay and Jewish identity, in the intimate context of a family drama. And in Lowenthal’s capable hands, The Paternity Test shows the novelist’s enduring hallmarks: accessible prose, depth of emotion, and a keen sense of empathy for all of his characters — flaws and all. A compelling read for anyone who wants to know what family truly means today.
Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine. He is the author of three novels, and the forthcoming memoir The End of Her.