Acclaimed author of adult fiction, Jennifer Gilmore (The Mothers, 2013) makes her second foray into writing for teens with If Only, an honest and affecting consideration of the emotional and ethical complications surrounding the process of open adoption. Comprised not only of separate timelines, but also a variety of alternate possible realities for its characters, If Only explores the relationship between choices and outcomes, the hands of fate (or chaos) and how they shape our identity.
A brief glance at America Adopts!’s list of pros and cons associated with open adoption makes it obvious why an author might find this subject a ripe ground for emotional excavation through fiction. In an open adoption, the pregnant mother, rather than an agency, chooses the adoptive parents for her baby from a portfolio of candidates, and has the option of maintaining a relationship with the child throughout their life. Almost comically, America Adopts! lists “Feeling less uncertainty about the future,” among the “pros” this arrangement offers, which, alas, none of the character in the world of If Only would likely attest to.
We meet Bridget when she’s four months pregnant, and mired in uncertainty. Her brief but intense relationship with the baby’s father, also a teen, ended before she learned of her pregnancy, and he has since taken up with someone else. An abortion was considered, but the finality of it paralyzed Bridget, so she allowed inertia to make the decision for her. Though her very religious (partner-less) mother is pressing for Bridget to give the baby a better home than they can offer from their lower-middle class existence, maternal instincts are kicking in. The prospect of handing off her child grows increasingly painful to Bridget with each awkward interview she conducts with another set of prospective parents.
Ivy has just turned sixteen, the age her birth mom, Bridget, was when she delivered her, and the dull murmur of questions Ivy has carried about the mysterious figure has turned into a roar. In spite of the mutually agreed upon plan for Bridget to remain involved in Ivy’s life, she disappeared one year after placing her in the care of Andrea and Joanne, the couple Bridget ultimately chose to raise her child. Bridget has left her daughter with a quilt, a dollhouse, and some heartfelt yet vague letters that nag at Ivy like tantalizing clues rather than comforting answers. If she had been raised by someone else, would she be “a different girl,” she wonders? “What if I was living the wrong life? Like I was meant to be with her.”
In answer to those questions, the reader is shown glimpses of a series of splinter universes where all the what-ifs of who Ivy might have been are borne out. Like the humanoid robots of Westworld, programmed and reprogrammed with a variety of personalities and stories, in this light it’s hard not to see Ivy as something of a pliant victim of the decisions of others, which helps us to sympathize with her ardent desire to get to the bottom of why she is the way she is.
While those without personal experience of adoption might imagine only its positive attributes, the portrait painted by Gilmore is characterized largely by ambivalence and loss. “I know that adoption is always the story of someone breaking someone else’s heart,” Bridget intones in later years, and it’s difficult to grapple with the word “always”. But Gilmore writes on the subject with acute authority, and whether or not Bridget’s story is truly universal, it’s certainly believable.
Pricklier questions of identity and nature versus nurture stalk the perimeters of the story without fully gaining entry. In the prime reality, Ivy’s adoptive parents are a lesbian couple, while Ivy herself has a boyfriend. In one of the alternate versions of Ivy we explore, she wonders about a gay friend of hers, “I’m becoming confused over what a choice is anyway. Like can he just choose who he wants to be? Not choose to be gay or not to be, I’m not saying that, but choose how to do it.” Yet in another alternate-Ivy chapter, she dwells in the memories of a significant evening with a friend named Raven, memories that are so vividly charged that they take on the character of romantic pining. Gilmore releases the question into the air for both readers and her character to mull, whether sexual identity could be circumstantial, but prudently withholds a definitive point of view. She takes this tact again when Ivy, in unflattering horror, meets a decrepit woman who could potentially be her grandmother, and considers whether a predisposition towards poverty might be genetic.
Gilmore is not afraid of letting her characters be occasionally unlikable for the sake of making them wholly real. Ivy can be petulant, ungrateful, entirely self-involved, and careless, but these are indeed the classic symptoms of being a teenager, along with a belief in a reason of cosmic significance behind one’s existence. Bridget’s view of the parent selecting process can be bracingly transactional. “I wonder for a moment if I can get a free trip out of this,” she thinks while interviewing a wealthy couple from Manhattan. The voicing alternates between first and third, but is at its most remarkable in first, written in genuine human speech, filled with half- formed thoughts and asides that dangle in space, a testament to the fact that even to look inside someone’s mind might not bring full clarity.
While more time might have been spent on the role of fathers in this dynamic, that’s perhaps an avenue better explored by another book, as this coven of mothers, daughters, and best friends has a particular, earthy breed of magic that might have been dispelled by the intrusion. If Only enchants through its blend of mystic grandeur, and the messy anguish and joy of human connections, those inborn and those chosen.