Just when you thought there was nothing new under the sun, and that we were stuck with the same 10 or so storylines for the rest of eternity, a book like Kinship Theory comes along. Exploiting 21st century advancements in medical technology, novelist Hester Kaplan has invented a new plot twist that would have surprised even Ecclesiastes. In Kaplan's novel, protagonist Maggie Crown, 48, bears a child for her infertile daughter. Kinship Theory is no Steel Magnolias, however, no story of unfaltering love and devotion between mother and daughter. Maggie is a reluctant heroine with few traditional womanly virtues. She resents her daughter's emotional dependency. She sleeps with men she doesn't really like. She neglects to make vital repairs on her house. On some subconscious level, she demands payment for the gift she gives her daughter. The karmic debt she exacts threatens to ruin almost everyone close to her.
Yet Maggie is well aware of her flaws, especially as a mother, and that self awareness is what makes the novel interesting.
Maggie's dysfunctional family isn't the only one under the microscope in Kaplan's novel. Her daughter, Dale, must decide whether to forgive her husband's infidelity, committed while Maggie was bearing their child. Maggie's boss and former lover, Ben, is wed to a nagging wife with whom he shares an embittered son, dying of AIDS. Kaplan successfully explores the underbelly of relationships that, to outside observers, may seem charmed. In this way, she carries on the Cheever tradition of exposing suburbia's hidden desperation.
Some readers may relate to Maggie's essential aloneness at the middle of life. Divorced from her husband, she provides emotional support to her daughter on demand, but receives little support in return. Her mother, Virginia, has cut all but the most formal ties to Maggie, in favor of an idyllic life in Florida with her second husband. Her solitude is problematic, but it is also clearly her choice. Many readers, disappointed with other literary depictions of middle-aged women on their own, will like Maggie. While she is no Pollyanna, nor even a Dr. Quinn, she is not needy or desperate or unfulfilled by her career. Like many 21st century women, she is blessed with excellent health and enough energy to do whatever she wants when she finally decides what that is.
The character of Maggie Crown represents both an impressive accomplish for Hester Kaplan and a challenge for future writers hoping to capture the psychology of the single woman at midlife.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.