The Paternity Test

University of Wisconsin Press  2012


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.

Discussion Questions

1. The idea of lineage is important in the novel. Stu feels a responsibility to his father, a Holocaust survivor, to continue the Nadler family; Debora is descended from Brazilian Marranos, who fled the Inquisition and managed to preserve certain Jewish traditions for centuries; Joseph shares his knowledge of gay culture with Pat, he says, because that’s how gay people “make family trees.” How do you think the desire to honor a tradition — family, religion, culture — affects the characters’ intensely individual decisions, such as whether or not to have children? Does their emphasis on “lineage” reflect selflessness or selfishness, or both?

2. Pat says that he and Stu are driven toward parenthood by different urges: “Stu wanted to father a child, and I wanted to raise one.” How different do you think these motives really are? Do you think this conflict is common within many couples? Or sometimes within the same person?

3. Stu criticizes Richard, Rina’s husband, by saying that he is “so hung up on ‘Jewish family’ — his fantasy of family — he ends up wrecking the one he has.” What other characters allow their idealized vision of a relationship (marriage, family, parenthood) to stand in the way of achieving that vision? With this in mind, would you call The Paternity Test a romantic novel or an anti-romantic novel, or something else altogether?

4. Surrogate motherhood is increasingly common, but it is still controversial. Do you feel, like Stu’s family, that any surrogate mother is necessarily being “used”? When Pat first meets Debora, he asks, “Why would you have someone else’s baby?” Did you find Debora’s various reasons satisfying?

5. Pat makes some questionable choices in The Paternity Test. Did you find yourself rooting for him or against him? Did your allegiances shift during the course of the novel?

6. Did you find Pat to be a trustworthy narrator? Do you think he generally provides a fair assessment of the other characters’ actions? Of his own?

7. Same-sex marriage and parenthood remain contentious topics. How do you think The Paternity Test fits in to the LGBT struggle for civil and family rights? Do the characters’ failings do damage to the political cause? Many heterosexual parents and would-be parents make mistakes; should LGBT people be granted the same leeway to mess up?

8. The gay-liberation movement was predicated, to some extent, on separating sexuality from traditional marital commitments and family structures. Now that increasing numbers of gay men are choosing to marry and have children, how is the earlier conception of liberation challenged? For Pat and Stu, do you think the goals of “gay liberation” and “gay family values” are incompatible, or is each essential to the other?

9. Infidelity repeatedly plays a role in the novel, and different characters respond to different instances of it in various ways. How would you have responded in each instance? Do you think a person’s reaction to infidelity has more to do with his/her sexual orientation or gender? Or are our reactions based on individual personality?

10. Orthodoxies of various kinds affect the story: Richard’s strict adherence to Judaism complicates his and Rina’s desire to adopt a child; Pat is frustrated that his circle of urban, non-monogamous gay friends subscribe to their own unbending tenets (“We had all decided upon the same way to be different”). What do you think the novel suggests about the risks and benefits of adhering to any sort of orthodoxy?

11. The novel’s conclusion seems deliberately open-ended. Why do you suppose the author chose not to give definitive answers to certain questions? Do you think each character got the fate that he or she deserved?

12. Do you think, in the end, that Pat and Stu have passed or failed “the paternity test”?

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