The Pater­ni­ty Test

By – November 8, 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.

Wayne Hoff­man is a vet­er­an jour­nal­ist, pub­lished in The New York Times, Wall Street Jour­nalWash­ing­ton Post, Hadas­sah Mag­a­zineThe For­wardOutThe Advo­cate, and else­where; he is exec­u­tive edi­tor of the online Jew­ish mag­a­zine Tablet. The author of The End of Her: Rac­ing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Mur­der, he has also pub­lished three nov­els, includ­ing Sweet Like Sug­ar, which won the Amer­i­can Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award. He lives in New York City and the Catskills.

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”?