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Originally published Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 6:10 AM

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‘The Mothers’: desperate measures in search of family

Jennifer Gilmore’s new novel, “The Mothers,” chronicles the travails of the open adoption process, told through the point of view of one woman yearning to become a mother.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Mothers’

by Jennifer Gilmore

Scribner, 288 pp., $25

Baby bumps are all the fashion these days. From the royal Kate Middleton to the comic Tina Fey, new motherhood is the topic of the moment for women of a certain age.

If only. As Jennifer Gilmore shows in her novel, “The Mothers,” there’s a flip side to this giddy fascination — the grief and rage that inflict infertile couples as they try every alternative in pursuit of a family.

“The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness,” observes Jesse Weintraub, the novel’s narrator and mommy wannabe. “The opposite of happiness is waiting.”

“The Mothers” covers the period from November 2009 to February 2011, a 10-month period following attempts at unassisted conception and in vitro. Now Jesse is pushing 40 and desperate for a child. So she and her Spanish-Italian husband, Ramon, have arrived at an endgame strategy: open adoption.

For Gilmore, who has walked in Jesse’s shoes, the point is to show the pain of loss for a woman scorned not by a man but, worse, by Mother Nature. The maternal impulse may not be universal. But for those who feel its pull, the yearning screams for satisfaction.

As Jesse tells it, adoption, domestic or international, seems fraught with risk and closed doors. Having chosen the former, she invests days in developing relationships by phone with prospective mothers who have contacted the agency she and her husband are working with. She is so frantic to be chosen that she fails to filter out candidates who either need someone to talk to or are perpetrating a scam. After one possibility goes bust, she’s so depressed that she stays in bed for two days.

“You know, Jesse, we’re not desperate,” her husband tells her.

“Speak for yourself,” she responds.

Jesse, a women’s studies professor who knows better intellectually but can’t help herself, is furious. At whom? The mothers of the book’s title, it seems, including her own, whose career took precedence over child-rearing; her mother-in-law, an Italian who smothers her son and only child with attention; and her peers, who keep popping out babies so effortlessly.

Even though she worries that her marriage can’t take the strain of waiting and wanting so badly, she feels scant tenderness toward Ramon. How easily an ally can seem like the enemy in a field of such heightened emotion.

So here’s the problem: if only Jesse were a more likable person! Sorrow invites sympathy; anger, not so much. And talk about self-absorbed! She’s not interested in saving the world; she just wants a baby, ASAP.

What’s more, from Jesse’s vantage, motherhood looks more like strollers in the park and trips to Babies ‘R’ Us than midnight feedings and diaper changes. Is she just envious of her friends’ acquisitions, or is her keening more fundamental?

Gilmore, reflecting her own experience with infertility, succeeds at making Jesse’s angst seem more fundamental. At times “The Mothers” feels a bit contrived, and the conclusion seems abrupt and starry-eyed. But Jesse, the writer’s intense and complicated alter-ego, is an ideal vehicle for showing what the want of a child can do to a woman and a marriage.

“The Mothers” is an honest story, not a comfortable one.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer.

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