Gay dads and surrogate mothers subjected to ‘Paternity Test’ in new novel by out Boston author Michael Lowenthal
Michael Lowenthal will read from and sign copies of The Paternity Test at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline on September 24 at 7 p.m. and at Porter Square Books in Cambridge on October 16 at 7 p.m. He will also appear at the Boston Book Festival on October 27.
Note: The following is adapted from a story that ran in the September/October 2012 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
By Loren King
For Michael Lowenthal, whose latest novel The Paternity Test (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press) came out this September, gay parenthood is a jumping off point into a rich and complex story that explores what creating a family means for one gay couple.
Same-sex marriage and the “gayby boom” has penetrated the culture — gays pushing strollers are ubiquitous in certain Boston neighborhoods and TV shows like Modern Family and The New Normal have brought gay parents into living rooms across America. But Lowenthal, whose other books include Charity Girl (2007), Avoidance (2002) and The Same Embrace (1998), is too good a writer to simply tell a conventional unconventional story. Lowenthal weaves what he calls a “completely imagined plot” about boyfriends Pat and Stu who hire a surrogate to bear their child with a Cape Cod setting and secondary characters far more familiar to him.
Lowenthal, who’s lived in Roslindale with his boyfriend Scott Heim, also a writer, for six years, says it surprised him to see how quickly the culture reflected the sudden boom in gay parenthood. Lesbians have been creating families longer, he says, but Lowenthal noticed, “suddenly when gay men go out, they’re talking about preschools. I was wondering how they handled this transition. Some were stereotypical party boys and club kids. I blinked and they were dads. That got me thinking about this plot.”
The Paternity Test chronicles Patrick Faunce, who hails from a WASP Cape Cod family, and his Jewish boyfriend Stu Nadler, an airline pilot, as they leave New York City for Pat’s childhood home on Cape Cod. There, they start the process of conceiving a child via a surrogate. Their reasons are the same that drive most couples, gay or straight: to change the course of their relationship; to connect them to family lineage; to please elderly parents; to satisfy a longing. Complicated enough — but their lives necessarily become bound with their “surro,” a warm Brazilian woman named Debora and her not-as-likable husband Danny. Through repeated “insems” and the roller coaster ride of waiting for Debora’s pregnancy, Pat and Debora form a bond that gradually leads to divisions among the foursome.
“It occurred to me, in a nuts-and-bolts-craft-of-fiction-writing way, that this whole quest to have a biological child takes on a new level with gay men because of the need for a surrogate. There’s a triangle and that’s always full of dramatic possibilities,” he says.
Lowenthal says it was his characters that took the story where it went. But his complex female character was no accident. “I was trying to make [the novel] compelling for the widest possible audience,” he says. “Since it deals with parenthood and commitment and what it means to be in a marriage, I thought a strong female character would be a path in for female readers,” he says, readily admitting that he “had a crush on Debora and liked when she was onstage.” Debora’s motives are as multi-layered as those of Stu and Pat, who have individual identities and another as a couple.
Such charged material might keep some readers from identifying, but that doesn’t concern Lowenthal. “I like to be provocative and push buttons,” he says. “The whole point of the gay rights movement was increasing the space for people to pursue their own definition of happiness. I didn’t march in the streets so that if you have an attraction to the wrong person, you’ll be ashamed or judged.”
Lowenthal, who’s taught creative writing at Lesley University for 10 years, worked on The Paternity Test for 4-5 years. But that included “a lot of starts and stops” as well as time set aside “waiting for people to shred it to bits,” he says. Now that it’s out, he’s casting about for a good idea for his next book which, he says, might be his first foray into non-fiction.
“I have friends who have kids, and one friend who used a surrogate,” says Lowenthal. But he didn’t use any of these as models for his characters. With little personal experience, he did “a fair amount of research” in order to create a believable world that Stu and Pat enter. Lowenthal is no stranger to immersing himself in information, historical and otherwise: Charity Girl is set during World War I and recounts how the government incarcerated and quarantined 15,000 young women who were found to have venereal disease. In fact, says Lowenthal, doing research is the part of being a novelist that he likes best. “If I could just do that, I’d be happy,” he says. [x]
The author is solely responsible for the content.