Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chosen As Dismal As a Northwest Downpour

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I wanted to tell a story in which there are no heroes or villains, just shades of gray, real people trying to recover from their stumbles with grace."

- Chandra Hoffman, Author's Note

First, a warning: If you are contemplating an adoption, are in the process of adopting, or think you may want to adopt at some time in the future, stop reading now. Just trust me on this one - you don't want to read Chosen by Chandra Hoffman. Why not, you ask? Well, you know all those nightmares you've been having? The ones where your 100% for sure birthparents change their minds in the end, or your cokehead birth couple hunts you down demanding more money for "their" baby, or you're forced into adopting a newborn with a shady health history because you're too old/poor/impatient/unattractive to wait for the robust Caucasion newborn for whom you've been praying? Basically, Hoffman takes all of your worst fears and twists them into a story that's as can't-look-away compelling as it is please-God-tell-me-this-could-never-happen horrifying. Disturbing doesn't even begin to describe it.

Still with me? Okay, but remember, I told you not to proceed.

Hoffman's debut novel opens on a drizzly Thanksgiving Day in Portland, Oregon, with a tireless social worker banging on the door of a seedy apartment, clutching a soggy bag of turkey and all the trimmings. Chloe Pinter, who's working her almost dream job at the Chosen Child adoption agency, is determined to bring a little holiday cheer to a young couple about to place their baby for adoption. Not that it's appreciated. All the violent, ex-con birth father seems to want is more money, whether it be from the agency or the wealthy couple waiting anxiously for his infant's birth. Chloe can't wait to be rid of him, but she's worried about his girlfriend, so vulnerable at 8 months pregnant. Especially when Chloe spies a bassinet tucked away in a corner of their apartment. Jason and Penny can't really be thinking of raising their child, can they? With no money, no job prospects, no nothing? If the placement falls through, Chloe will be disappointing not only her demanding boss, but one of the biggest cash-cow clients the agency's ever had. Not to mention damning a baby to the same miserable life her birth parents lead. As much as she loves bringing families together, it's situations like these that make Chloe question her choice of career.

Since she's not quite stressed enough at work, Chloe also gets to deal with pressure from her boyfriend. A consummate wind maggot, who lives for blowing down the Gorge on a stiff wind, Dan's not exactly cut out for the 8-to-5 gig. He longs to leave the rain behind and set up a kiteboarding business on Maui. Chloe's not about to bring up the marriage idea again, especially when he seems bent on leaving Oregon - with or without her. She adores the Pacific Northwest, but with all the chaos at work, Hawaii's looking more appealing every day. There's only one problem: She loves her job.

While Chloe sorts out her love life and keeps an eye on Jason and Penny, Francie McAdoo prepares to welcome their child into her spacious Tudor. Finally. She and her husband, John, have waited for this moment for so long she can hardly believe it's happening at last. She knows her obsessive pursuit of adoption is at least partly responsible for the distance she's been feeling between her and John, but, she feels sure, he'll come around once the baby's home. A few streets over, Paul and Eva Nova, acquaintances of the McAdoos, are also getting ready for an impending birth. After a dozen miscarriages, Lucky 13's about to make his appearance. Paul should be on top of the world, so why is he feeling so discontented? Why does his body tingle with apprehension? None of them know it yet, but very soon all of them - Chloe, Jason, Penny, Francie, John, Paul and Eva - will be thrown together in a frightening case of kidnapping, an event that will change all of their lives. Forever.

Chosen lacks the pacing to truly be called a thriller, but it remains a riveting, heart-pumper of a drama. In a setup that will be familiar to Jodi Picoult fans, Hoffman examines the adoption issue from all sides, letting us feel, if not completely understand, the experience from several different perspectives. Because of this device, I usually come away from a Picoult novel aching for all of its narrators, even those with whom I disagree. Not so with Chosen. While each of its cast members is flawed, some of them are so much so that my disgust trumps my ability to empathize, making it difficult to care what happens to them. Even the most settled of the main characters are, on the whole, unhappy, which creates an all-around depressing story, despite its ultimately hopeful ending. Add in frequent profanity, graphic sexual content and constant drug/alcohol abuse and the story becomes more dismal than a Portland rain shower.

As someone who's worked extensively with adoption, Hoffman knows her stuff. She's no doubt experienced the situations of which she writes. Still, I found in Chosen a curious juxtaposition of adoption myth and reality (at least as I've experienced it). Although the author goes to great pains to show that few parents "give up" their children without mourning the loss, she still makes her birth couples as stereotypical as they can be - poor, greedy, unmarried, unstable, uneducated, etc. The adoptive parents, especially Eva, are similarly cliched. There's the prospective mother who's so obsessed with finding a baby that she can't find happiness anywhere else, the woman who collects the world's orphans in an effort to assuage her own guilt, the lady who aches from wanting a child, but is outraged when she learns he's of a different race, etc. I'm not saying I've never encountered these cliches - they wouldn't be cliches if they never occurred - I'm just surprised to find so many of them in a book by someone once so connected to the adoption world. As the adoptive mother of a bi-racial daughter, who supports the process wholeheartedly, I may be a tad biased. Still, I wanted Hoffman to show more of the complexity that exists in the adoption triad (birth parents/adoptive parents/child).

On the bright side (because even in the Northwest, there's occasional sunshine), Hoffman writes with great skill and authority. She knows how to hook a reader, keep her reading, and surprise her with twists, turns and an unexpectedly satisfying ending (not the Epilogue, though - there's nothing satisfying about that). Having grown up in the Columbia River Gorge, I loved the setting, especially references to windsurfing, Mt. Hood, Powell's Books, and other Northwest delights. The premise of the book fascinates me as well, I just wish it had been executed in a warmer, more nuanced manner. As is, Chosen is one of those books that captured my attention, but not my heart.

Okay, you adoption-ers, you can open your eyes now. Wait a minute, what are you still doing here? Don't say I didn't warn you ...

(Readalikes: reminded me of books by Jodi Picoult and Anna Quindlen)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, graphic sexual content, frequent depiction of drug/alchohol abuse, and violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Chosen from the generous folks at Harper Collins. Thank you!

4 comments:

  1. I read another review that also talked about the characters being pretty stereotypical/cliche. Sounds like this had a good premise anyway!

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  2. This sounds like a scare the crap out of you about something that probably happens <3% of the time. Of course it makes a great/scary story.

    As a birth mother, once I made up my mind I couldn't look back. It wouldn't have been fair to my daughter or her parents. 20 years later I know I still made the best decision for everyone.

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  3. Jenny - They really are. I wish Hoffman had branched out a little.

    Julie - I completely agree with you. This kind of thing rarely happens, but I guess you can't create a sufficiently creepy thriller without a little bit of psycho-ness going on.

    All the birth mothers I know say the exact same thing - although it tore their hearts out to place their babies for adoption, they know they did the right thing for their children. I'm immensely grateful to my daughter's birth mom for making that sacrifice.

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  4. You write a thorough compelling review, one that sums it up quite nicely! Much better than mine. Thanks for stopping by my blog and bringing attention to yours!

    ReplyDelete

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