A THEORY OF RELATIVITY by Jacquelyn Mitchard is a gripping story about how families cope with the burdens of love and loss. But it also serves as a cautionary tale about how a novel can pull you in with a grabby opening, then test your mettle by dragging you through uncut prose, snarly legal scenes, and weepy flashbacks. Mitchard presents readers with tandem challenges: Will the characters endure? Will you?
RELATIVITY begins with a fatal car crash --- "They died instantly. Or close enough." The victims are Ray and Georgia Nye, a young couple whose untimely demise leaves their one-year-old daughter Keefer an orphan. The families on both sides are devastated, and in the midst of their heartbreak emerges an ugly and frantic custody battle. On one side is Gordon McKenna, a carefree 24-year-old high school math teacher and Georgia's brother. On the other side are Delia and Craig Cady, Ray's affluent born-again cousins. Since he is Georgia's sibling, Gordon appears to have the advantage. However, a legal bombshell explodes when the petitions reach court. Because Georgia and Gordon were each adopted by the McKennas when they were babies, they are not related by blood, and the statute specifies that only blood relatives can file for an expedited adoption. Overnight, the McKennas turn into lobbyists, pressuring the state legislature to rephrase the law. The wrangling over Keefer takes place against the backdrop of the abrupt coming of age of Gordon and all of Ray's and Georgia's loved ones, especially their parents.
Mitchard, who is also a syndicated columnist, has chronicled her struggles with adopting a child in her newspaper writing. Here, she tackles ambitious and important questions about identity and relationships, but her insights are obscured by all the words. After the taut opener, she follows up with: "Gordon, of course, knew that 'instantly,' in this context, didn't mean what it seemed to suggest: Several minutes would have passed inside the car after the impact, while the final tick and swoosh of Ray's and Georgia's heart-sent blood swept a pointless circuit, while muscles contracted loyally at the behest of a last volley of neurological commands."
There's also heavy-handed foreshadowing --- "The day of the accident, the drive home from the bridge, would be the last time Gordon would be confident, stupidly confident..." --- and overripe descriptions --- "he would…feel her tiny breasts with their startling large nipples like echinacea flowers crushed against his chest…" While Mitchard is known for the forthright humor in her columns, any laughs here seem unintentional, as when she writes: "How would Keefer, the puree of Georgia and Ray, turn out?"
What does keep the reader going is wanting to find out who will be the little girl's guardian. Towards the end of the book, the judge proclaims his exasperation with the "endless wrangling" and orders the two sides to come to an agreement. The reader will only wish he had intervened sooner. A freak incident and three more chapters later, A THEORY OF RELATIVITY finally finishes with a whimper after starting with a bang.
Reviewed by Daryl Chen on January 23, 2011
A Theory of Relativity