All in the family
by Jim Piechota
The Paternity Test by Michael Lowenthal; Terrace Books/Univ. of Wisconsin Press, $26.95
Boston author Michael Lowenthal's impressively distinctive oeuvre includes stories of Jewish twin brothers struggling to come to terms with their heritage, their separate sexualities, and their strict familial upbringing (The Same Embrace , 1998); a summer camp seething with burgeoning desire (Avoidance, 2002); and a work of sublime historical fiction about the plight of a WWI-era Boston girl accused of contracting and transmitting a "social disease" (Charity Girl , 2007).
His latest, The Paternity Test, a family drama about two men hoping to revive a stale partnership with the birth of a child, equals and, in places, rises above his former works of fiction. The story follows romantic poet Pat Faunce, who after years balancing himself on the precipice of a rickety relationship with philandering airline pilot Stu ("I was not supposed to mind his sleeping with other men: Article I of the Gay Constitution"), becomes desperate to preserve their love and proposes raising a child together.
Against the judgment of friends who suggest they rear an "imaginary baby" as a parental litmus test (and a relationship stress test), the two embark on a journey beautifully and engagingly fleshed out by Lowenthal, who seems to have come full circle by employing the same family-based literary oomph and energetic storytelling wizardry that he demonstrated in his late-1990s debut, The Same Embrace.
Abandoning New York City, where many of Stu's "Manhunt"-ing hook-ups were being initiated, both men nervously brave the "somber shades of Cape Cod in December." Their search for a suitable surrogate mother ends with Debora, an excitable Brazilian immigrant, who not only seems a perfect choice to fulfill their dream of parenthood, but also incites a cultural exchange that educates the men, as well as entertains and informs the reader with Brazilian heritage. Stu realizes with a child he can pacify his demanding parents' dream of a Jewish grandchild, and Pat hopes the baby will resuscitate and resurrect a love that has seen better days. But will it be enough? And what of Pat's newfound desire for Debora? And, in a moral predicament that becomes the crux of the novel, is it truly fair to bring a child into the world on the winds of conflicting, ambiguous intentions?
The storyline is breezy, entertaining, and above all, relevant. But it is Lowenthal's delivery that seals the deal. The author has an uncanny eye for detail and the ability to shore up an entire relationship or the unobvious mood in a room with an economy of exacting, carefully chosen words. At the onset, Pat and Stu's shaky relationship is described with, "Even on the best of days, our happiness felt fragile," and over the course of the novel, the author finesses that insecurity, puts a top-spin on it, and manages a conclusion that envelops both men with a loving, sensible, and believable epiphany.
Nice work from a talented New England-based author who just keeps getting better.