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At first glance, the concept of Michael Lowenthal’s The Paternity Test (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press) reads like the possible synopsis of a new television show. The plot of two gay men deciding to become fathers by way of a surrogate mother feels familiar in the current culture of gay-family based sitcoms (The New Normal) or Oprah’s recent sit-down chat with Neil Patrick Harris and hubby. The characters of Patrick and Stu even sound and read like people you know. They’re the couple you invite over for brunch or catch up with in the grocery store. They’re the archetype of the perfect gay couple: educated, successful, and always armed with a witty anecdote.
Yet, Lowenthal quickly delves us beneath the surface of the complicated relationship between these two men. Yes, the formula is there: our relationship is in jeopardy and a baby might save us from complete ruin. But what saves this story from languishing in the land of predictability is Lowenthal’s willingness to allow his characters to make messy mistakes in their lives. These are flawed characters and they become fully realized through the sometimes bad/wrong choices they make.
Patrick is devoted. He’s a hopeless, somewhat neurotic romantic. He’s a poet and a text book writer. Stu is a pilot with a hook-up already planned in every city he touches ground in. Their relationship has evolved from a hot love affair into a no rules arrangement, an opportunity Stu takes full advantage of. Sound like the makings of a happily-ever-after? Strangely, the deeper Lowenthal takes us below the social exterior of these men’s lives, the more the reader realizes how much they really do love each other, baby or not.
Patrick has recently inherited a summer cottage in Cape Cod, a place he frequented with his now deceased parents when he was a child. He’s convinced Stu to leave city life behind and embark on a paternal journey with him, certain that parenting will reignite the spark that once fueled their love. Enter Debora and Danny. She’s the somewhat enigmatic Brazilian stranger who might just be the answer to all of Patrick and Stu’s issues, if she’s willing to be their surrogate. Danny is her often combative American husband, a man with secrets all his own. As their lives intertwine, Lowenthal makes great use of his title and puts each of his characters to the ultimate test. Challenges abound and through them, we are offered a poignant look at the fragility of the human heart.
The character of Debora truly serves as a catalyst for the story. Her presence sets questions into motion before we even meet her on page. En route to their first meeting with her, Patrick worries Would Debora and her husband see the patched-up, worthy Stu and Pat? Would any of our old frayings show? For Patrick, Debora represents hope. If she has a child for them, maybe Stu will be faithful. Maybe he’ll want to stay home. Maybe Patrick won’t have to exist in a constant anxious state plagued with thoughts like How pathetic would that be? Asking a stranger to tell me what my lover was truly like. By entering their lives, Debora forces both men to examine their absolute wants. Is a baby the cure all? Will fatherhood be the bond that holds them together forever? As the cracks in their relationship start to become more apparent (nicely mirrored in Debora and Danny’s marriage), Patrick and Stu must come to terms with them and make the ultimate choice: do we walk away from each other and become another broken-up couple like so many others we know?
The beauty of The Paternity Test is Lowenthal’s brilliant ability to make the sexuality of his two gay characters secondary. Instead, the focus here is much more universal: it’s about a relationship between two people. Gender is not significant. What matters here is love. Sure, it’s a complicated, messy, and somewhat dysfunctional love, but it reads and feels like the real thing.
The Paternity Test
by Michael Lowenthal
Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299290009, 264 pp.