Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.
In this season of forced family fun, I have to admit that I basked in a warm glow of validation when I encountered these lines in Eleanor Brown’s new novel, ANY OTHER FAMILY (Putnam, 368 pp., $27): “How odd that they came on vacation only to feel further apart from each other. When she thinks of how close she hoped they would all become during these weeks together, she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
The destination is Aspen, Colo., and the rental is the kind I fantasize about while hanging my bathing suit on a rusty nail in yet another deceptively photographed vacation rental. (Why do I always fall for the claw foot tub?) It’s a chateau-like spread with mountain views, a pool, a well-stocked kitchen and proximity to wholesome activities: hiking, boating, horseback riding, disc golf and bumper cars.
Brown’s characters do their best to enjoy the spread but their group dynamic is complicated. “They look like any other family,” Brown writes. “They are a family formed by three sets of parents who are adopted from the same group of biological siblings.” Ginger is the mother of the eldest, Phoebe; Tabitha and Perry, bankrollers of the vacation, are raising twins, Tate and Taylor; and, after an exhausting run on the fertility treadmill, Elizabeth and John are finding their footing as parents of baby Violet. The adults have promised their children’s birth mother, Brianna, that they will raise the siblings to be part of one another’s lives. Think birthday parties, holidays, Sunday dinners — and now this getaway.
Brown could have assembled a perfectly entertaining itinerary from the politics, parenting differences and pre-existing problems of the Aspen crew; Instead, she ratchets up the tension with a call from Brianna, who has regretfully declined an invitation to the bacchanal. (Why anyone would miss out on Tabitha’s artful parade of mini quiches, butter bean dip and ham and melon on sustainable toothpicks is a mystery to me.) Brianna has news: She’s pregnant for the fourth time. Might someone in the house want another baby? And if not, will the current parents locate a family for Brianna’s future bundle of joy?
This is when “Any Other Family” graduates from fun frolic with hints of stress to full-bodied exploration of family ties, especially those made by choice. Brown breaks up tense alpine adventures with letters from prospective parents who run the gamut from desperate to hopeful to ambivalent. Their experiences add depth and texture to this unexpectedly philosophical tale, as do the kids’ moving questions about their impending sibling.
“In their world, adoption is the default state,” Brown writes. “Ginger recalls Tabitha’s explaining to Tate and Taylor when they were much younger, ‘Some people’s mom and birth mom are the same person.’” It’s harder to explain why Brianna keeps having babies she doesn’t plan to raise.
It seems appropriate that the only constant in “Any Other Family” is the siblings’ bedrock connection to one another. While the adult relationships endure peaks and valleys that reflect the Colorado landscape, the younger generation appears to have its feet planted on solid ground. Isn’t that the goal for any family, in ordinary time and otherwise, no matter how it came together?
If you had to pick only one mother to have a meal with, whom would you choose — Tabitha, Ginger, Elizabeth or Brianna? Why?
Which of the prospective adoptive parents were you rooting for? What did you think of the ending?
“All You Can Ever Know,” by Nicole Chung. In this honest (sometimes painfully so) memoir, the Korean daughter of white parents investigates the circumstances of her adoption and learns that the real story is more complicated than the one she was told. “Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power,” Chung writes. “I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.” Pregnant with a child of her own, she starts asking questions.
“American Baby,” by Gabrielle Glaser. What happens when adoption isn’t open and a birth mother and a grown adoptee want to find each other? Glaser, a veteran journalist, investigates “a singular story to illuminate a universal truth,” our reviewer wrote. “There are no one-in-a-million triplets here, just a teenage girl and a baby, who could be any young mother, any infant son. In fact, Glaser argues, Margaret Erle Katz and her son David Rosenberg are every sealed, secretive adoption, and in their intimate tale are the seeds of today’s adoption practices and parenting norms, as our past continually redefines our present.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”
ANY OTHER FAMILY, by Eleanor Brown | 368 pp. | Putnam | $27