Gay couple avoids the demons in their marriage with a surrogate from another crumbling marriage in Michael Lowenthal’s novel
Honesty may always be the best policy, but not often the realistic one. In Michael Lowenthal’s (Charity Girl, Avoidance) latest novel The Paternity Test, two marriages are put through the ringer when a gay couple decides to fix their marriage by having a child via surrogate. Severely fractured couple, Pat and Stu, decide to leave the temptations of Manhattan behind to Pat’s family home on Cape Cod. Pat hopes the laid back location will solve Stu’s fidelity issues, not realizing how bruised their relationship really is. Their marital indifference leads them to wanting a child.
Lowenthal begins the novel with Pat’s baby enthusiasm, but intentionally provides no good reason why these two would ever make decent parents, leading us to wonder whether people have children out of desire or distraction. While deeply sensitive, Lowenthal’s wrenching study of Pat and Stu’s flailing relationship quickly frustrated this millennial reader. The two characters depicted in The Paternity Test are products of a generation of gay men lost in the self-loathing mentality. Pat’s fair-weather bisexuality points to his messed up ideas about heteronormative conformity, despite his open homosexuality. Low self-esteem mixed with the old school idea of gay men being unable to commit or simply unaccountable for adultery, is more or less an outdated notion of gay love in the post-Will & Grace era. Since the Bush administration, (under which this story takes place) popular opinion of marriage equality has changed: we now have the President and several states that acknowledge gay marriage. Gay people are no longer seen as sexual deviants, but it seems that Lowenthal’s characters crave that assumption. Several well-detailed scenes in the beginning of the novel show a depraved, drug-tinged nightlife of cheating and gross sex that would make most married gay men today cringe. What we see in Lowenthal’s novel is essentially the antithesis to the gentrified gay couple on Modern Family. While neither example is exactly flattering to the gay image, I have to say Pat and Stu’s flaws make them more three-dimensional by the end of the novel and probably more realistic of their age demographic than those depicted on Modern Family. Pat and Stu’s imperfect relationship makes you question how any marriage works, regardless of sexual orientation.
The bigger picture in this novel, however, is not about the changing views on sexuality, but rather, why couples decide to have children. Stu and Pat make the confusing choice to go through a surrogate. What they don’t seem to understand until about half-way through the book is that this woman has her own reasons for carrying their child. When Pat finds Deborah on a surrogate chat room, she seems like the genetic ideal and personal match, but what he soon finds out is that she is in a fractured marriage as well. Lowenthal’s sharp examination of surrogate Deborah and her dysfunctional marriage to Danny is slowly revealed to our narrator Pat, as it is to us. In their quest for a family, Pat and Stu are not aware of the destruction they’re causing to Deborah’s family.
Overall, The Paternity Test succeeds as a deeply felt account of why having a child is not a sustainable way to make a marriage last. Lowenthal takes a melancholic tone from the very beginning and beautifully carries it through the entire novel in both scene and story. The setting itself is a character. Cape Cod is a lovely vacation town but so often it’s seen in the harshness of winter, which becomes an accurate parallel for what Pat and Stu and even Deborah and Danny feel in their unhappy marriages.
Lowenthal also graphically describes how physically and emotionally invasive the surrogate process is; from the endless hours spent online searching and to the very unpleasant task of artificial insemination. It seems so foreign and complicated that you’d really have to wonder how successful it ever really is. The novel concludes on a fairly bleak note that fails to make these two couples really confront their deeper issues, and in the end, what is more realistic than that? The Paternity Test, though somewhat off in its portrayal of healthy gay relationships, does have a lot to say about the reasons why we decide to procreate. Lowenthal asks the essential question of all married and long term couples dealing with periods of boredom: is having a child going to fix us? The answer isn’t nearly as simple as a yes or no and this novel supposes that maybe instead of getting to the deeper issues, some couples slap a child over them like a giant Band-Aid.