- The Washington Times - Friday, July 23, 2010

THE RED THREAD
By Ann Hood
Norton, $23.95
304 pages

The title of Ann Hood’s new novel derives from a Chinese belief that a red thread ties children to all the people who will play a part in their lives. Over a lifetime, the thread shortens to link those whose destiny is to be together, but it also can stretch over long distances, as it does when Americans adopt babies from China.

In Ms. Hood’s novel, the adopted children are all girls, all abandoned by their Chinese families. Because Chinese sons have the duty of taking care of aged parents, having a baby girl rather than a boy has always been treated as a misfortune. Today, population-control policies mean that parents who have a daughter may have no chance of a son. Some parents, therefore, abandon girls so they can try for a boy.

The adopting parents in the story are couples living around Providence, R.I., who sign up with Maya Lange’s Red Thread Adoption Agency. Maya already has arranged more than 400 adoptions from Chinese orphanages that care for the unwanted baby girls. She steers couples though the home inspections, social-worker visits and paperwork of the adoption process. She also arranges social events so the couples get to know each other before the big day when the red thread pulls them all to China, where they pick up their babies. The whole process takes about a year, and Maya’s experience has taught her that some couples will be consumed with impatience, some will vacillate in their desire for a baby, and one or two may even withdraw their applications.

Readers will find it easy to spot the couples who will have second thoughts but harder to identify who, if anyone, will decide that adopting is not, after all, a good idea. Among the couples are Nell and Benjamin Walker-Adams, who seem, frankly, too self-involved to become good parents; Maya’s friend Emily and her husband, Michael, who are having a hard time coping with his daughter from a previous marriage; and sweet-natured Sophie, who is longing for a baby, and her not-so-enthusiastic husband, Theo, who manages both to get Sophie pregnant and entangle himself in an affair while waiting for their Chinese daughter.

For these three couples, as for the others in the novel, the decision to adopt exposes the strains in their marriages, to say nothing of their character flaws. Maya, ever professional, accepts them for what they are. Her sympathy with their desire for a baby never wavers because her daughter died in an accident, and so she understands the wish for a child.

Author Ann Hood also lost a daughter, as she explains in her afterword to “The Red Thread.” This tragic experience probably underpins her portrayal of Maya, who is empathetic but organized and controlled in a way that suggests she is somehow immune from the desires and second-guessings that afflict the would-be parents. Of course, she is no such thing.

Ms. Hood’s fine-tuned portrayal of her convincingly exposes the coping mechanisms of a bereaved mother: “A person might think that by giving these families their babies, her own heart would have healed,” she writes. “But hers still felt like someone had punched a hole in it.” Ms. Hood is equally good at describing the adopting couples, able to record their faults without being judgmental, not requiring that parents who adopt reach some standard of personal virtue that biological parents never have to meet.

But the parts of “The Red Thread” that do most to show the many layers of emotion involved in adoptions are the stories of the Chinese parents, which are interleaved with those of the American couples. They include harsh renderings of husbands and mothers-in-law who reject baby girls and force their mothers to give them up, often by leaving them in a spot where some good-willed person will find them. In one case, the weaker of twins is abandoned because if one baby girl is bad luck, having two is an absolute disaster. But in another, a loving father takes his baby daughter to an orphanage specifically so she will have a chance of being taken to America, where she will receive the education her dead mother wanted.

The Chinese stories are potentially difficult for readers because they tell of a situation - mothers forced to give up baby girls - that we find deplorable. But Ms. Hood fictionalizes them thoughtfully, writing from a sympathetic distance without presuming to judge the ways of another culture. Thus she avoids commentary on Chinese population policies and enters carefully into the Chinese parents’ feelings and lives so that she can show what it must be like to have to part with their little girls.

With stories from so many Chinese and American couples in play, “The Red Thread” could have gone every which way, its focus scattered over many couples, many babies, many situations. Ms. Hood prevents this by using Maya’s story as the warp, weaving into it the thread of Maya’s life and the threads connecting the couples and their Chinese daughters. The result is a brilliant patchwork of stories that illuminate each other.

At the end of the novel, the newborns whom we saw deposited in parks and on doorsteps are about 9 months old. The orphanage has chosen which baby goes to which home, and so we see the red threads doing their work, linking daughters to families in mysterious and ineffable ways. It’s a conclusion that is both charming and credible - and very satisfying.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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