Sunday, November 27, 2016

Donor Material Subplot Sneak Attacks

Oh, reading. Such a wonderful pastime, such a cheap way to travel and un-creepy way to possess other bodies, other minds. Maybe the way I stated that is creepy. Oh well, it's true.

Just for the sake of spoiler alerts, the two books I'm going to talk about are Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty and The Things We Wish Were True by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen. If you haven't read these yet and you don't want anything whatsoever spoiled, quit reading now. I promise not to spoil major major plot points, but you already know that donor material wends its way through some part of the books, so hopefully that in itself is not total spoilage. But yeah, I'm going to spoil things about the subplots, so stop reading if you haven't read them yet and are planning to. I mean it. Come back after.


Truly, Madly, Guilty
Truly, Madly, Guilty first, because it irritated me least. Liane Moriarty is no stranger to writing about infertility, since I've previously written about how a very realistic IVF experience shows up in a rather large subplot in What Alice Forgot. That one really got me, because I was fresh off IVF-ing when I read it, in the getting-homestudy-approved phase of adoption. It made me tear up, but because it was realistic and very much accurate in my mind. Truly, Madly, Guilty is different, because the subplot is fairly important to the dynamics of the main issue in the book. Basically, these three couples (two of whom have children) have an impromptu barbecue, and SOMETHING happens at the barbecue that affects every last one of them including the crotchety older man next door, and you don't find out what that SOMETHING is until fairly far into the book. The chapters are from various perspectives and divided up into The Day of the Barbecue and unlabeled chapters that are clearly months later, and then close to the end, The Day After the Barbecue. I will not reveal the SOMETHING.

But, the subplot is that the neighbors who do not have children, Erika and Oliver, have been secretly going through IVF (eleven rounds of IVF in two years apparently) and have recently found out that Erika's eggs are poor quality and that they need to find an egg donor. They are asking their friends, Clementine and Sam, if Clementine will be their egg donor, since in Australia you need to find a known donor or the rare anonymous uncompensated other than medical costs donor, as the way so many do it in the US is illegal. Something I didn't know, actually. There is a shortage of egg donors in Australia, and so their doctor tells them they need to approach a friend or relative as that will be the easiest, least complicated option (um, okay...). As you can imagine this causes a lot of tension that adds to whatever the SOMETHING is that happens at the barbecue that changes everyone.

For one, Clementine and Sam are flabbergasted that two years and eleven rounds of IVF have gone by without them knowing. They also throw in a "but you said you didn't want children!" to Erika, which makes her bristle because apparently can't you change your mind on that front? Erika and Oliver say they didn't want to share their struggle, it was their private thing, but now they need help. They don't tell anyone that if they can't find a known donor then that option is not likely going to work for them, and everyone assumes that there are other options, which seemed pretty realistic to me.

Erika is more ambivalent than her husband about parenthood though, more willing to accept if it doesn't work out, but very willing to do whatever it takes to give her husband the child he wants so badly.

Clementine's thoughts in her head show a reluctance from the start, "To their own child, thought Clementine despairingly. They'd be good parents to their own child. Not my child. It wouldn't be your child, Clementine. But it would. Technically, as Holly would say, it would be her child. Her DNA. People do this for strangers, she told herself. They donate eggs just to be nice, to be kind. To people they'd never met. This was her friend. Her "best friend." So why was the word "No!" so loud in her head?" (p. 94)

And then, the worst thing Clementine is talking her feelings over with her husband as they go to change their youngest girl's diaper, Erika comes up with the diaper bag and overhears the conversation. It doesn't go well. When Sam asks Clementine if she wants to do it, she says no, a gut no, but then calls the whole thing repulsive, and then says, "I think I'd feel like it was my baby. I'd feel like they had my baby."

Oh, tension tension tension. I actually thought that the complexity of donor egg is handled well, from all the viewpoints. The overly simplified way Erika's husband, Oliver thinks of it, the gut reaction Clementine felt at being asked, the way it affects the strained friendship that they have already. The horrors of accidentally letting it slip to a parent who may not agree with your decision. (Erika's mom has some issues, but clearly makes her thoughts known when she laments not having a "real" grandchild and being further beholden to Clementine's family if she donates her eggs, and seems to have no idea what they've been through to get to this point, only seeing it from her own selfish viewpoint.)

I also like that things aren't wrapped up as neat and tidy as infertility subplots often are. SPOILER; they don't go through with the friend egg donation. They make peace with never being pregnant. Oliver researches foster adoption, because both he and Erika had very complicated family lives growing up and he thinks they could have an insight into hurting children that maybe might help them be more prepared for the difficulties of such an adventure. And the difficulties aren't glossed over, but there's no child at the end for them. No miracle pregnancy. No baby-dropped-in-the-lap. And that is very much appreciated.

It was interesting, because I was very happy to have an anonymous egg donor when we went through that process. I might have liked to have known more about her, and later have had the option to have my child be able to know her in some way, but I didn't have to have an incredibly awkward conversation with a friend about it, or think about those dynamics. That is one of many reasons why we didn't pursue gestational carrier. Using an agency is illegal in New York, and even using a known carrier is legally tricky, and even approaching those conversations in a hypothetical way was terribly, terribly awkward and prefaced with "we'd never actually do this, but..." One friend said that she'd have a much easier time being a gestational carrier than an egg donor, because she felt the same as Clementine -- it would really be HER baby, whereas carrying that baby would be easier. Which I thought would actually be the other way around, in the end no one really truly wanted to do either (and we didn't really want them to, either, so it was all fair and good). I cringed at the scenario in the book, but felt it was accurate and added so many tensions to an already tense situation that gets way, way worse -- deliciously so for the book.

The Things We Wish Were True
This one just plain pissed me off. It was an infertility subplot that I feel is only one step away from that awful gestational-carrier-gone-wrong movie that came out in the late summer/early fall. There is no way for me to discuss this one without ruining one of the four storylines that weave their way through this book. The book was okay, but this subplot was very, very irritating. And HIGHLY unrealistic.

It's Bryte's story. (Even the name Bryte irritated me...there were so many strange names here -- Bryte, Jencey, Zell, Cailey...and I know it was set in the South where interesting names reign, but COME ON.)

Bryte and her husband, Everett, have a two-year-old son named Christopher, who's the spitting image of his daddy. They tried hard to have him and went through an infertility clinic, when finally they were blessed with their little boy. The problem is, Everett wants a second child and Bryte is determined that she won't go through that again. It seemed to have affected her significantly. She became a sort of shell of herself during that process and is perfectly happy to have one child. That part seems realistic, even her starting to look into going back to work so that it will be harder to go the fertility clinic. Everett was an only child and doesn't want that for his son because it was very lonely and awful apparently, so he keeps pressing the issue.

So much so, actually, that he plans a visit to the fertility clinic by himself to gather information and see what it will take to "get the ball rolling," and then bring that information back to Bryte as he thinks that maybe she is just a little post-traumatic-stressed and needs a little nudge.

Which to me doesn't sound like a very supportive, loving approach, but this does happen where two people diverge in their thoughts on family building options at some point in the journey.

The thing that really, really pissed me off though is that towards the end of the book, there's a sort of double double cross. Everett goes to the fertility clinic AT THE VERY SAME TIME that Bryte goes to meet a work contact whose business card she has kept since a meeting over two years ago for a drink to talk about a job, supposedly, and so they are both sort of betraying each other. Except when Bryte goes to meet this guy, it's clear they had something more than business going on before and he strangely looks JUST LIKE EVERETT, and then at the same time Everett goes to the doctor and is told FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME that he has severe male factor and cannot father his own biological children. A fact apparently left out of all their previous medical records.

A fact that Bryte knew during a medical appointment she attended by herself, and kept from Everett because she didn't want him to know this heartbreaking news, and then she had the recruiting meeting with the other guy who JUST HAPPENED TO LOOK LIKE HER HUSBAND and had sex EXACTLY ONCE and then got pregnant, POOF, with Christopher, who looks so much like Everett that she thought she was "home free."

Oh holy throw my Kindle across the room. First of all, what self-respecting doctor would share that information with you but not your husband, ever? I mean, I guess they didn't go back after she got pregnant and she didn't go to the clinic for her early pregnancy scans, so you could feasibly have that kept secret, but DON'T THEY TEST THOSE THINGS FAIRLY EARLY? Aren't they required to tell you your medical diagnosis, yourself? Wouldn't there at least be some sort of patient portal? The book takes place in 2014 so it seems records transparency would be the norm.

Also, I feel like the whole "I'm so desperate to give my husband the baby he desires I'll go off and do some sort of indecent-proposal secret affair thing with this doppelganger and NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW" trope is just stupid. It plays into the desperation. It plays into the "whatever it takes," but in a highly unrealistic fashion.

So, after having a crisis that his son isn't technically "his," and asking Bryte to leave for a whopping several hours, he even gives her the phone, asking her to redial and showing that he can look the other way while she goes and gets knocked up again with a sibling with this random guy who has no idea he has a genetic link out there. She says no. Even though the timing is apparently PERFECT and one shot can totally get you pregnant.

I think that was one of the things that bothered me most, was this idea that a one-time deal timed perfectly with a virtual stranger could get that bun in the oven. NO NO NO. So unrealistic.

Also, after they decide that she's not going to have sex with someone else to get pregnant with a sibling who looks like their son, they say that they don't want to do sperm donor or adoption because "the differences would be too obvious" from their son. Yeah, that's logical. Better to have a one-night stand and get the good stuff.

But, apparently, they change their minds because at a get together with neighbors at the end of the book someone says that "oh, a little girl would be so wonderful for you!" and their response is, "Well, we're thinking of adopting one!"

Tie the ribbon on nice and neat and tidy, they're just going to go out and adopt a little girl to complete their family, lickety-split. No mention of the difficulties that were so realistic in Truly, Madly, Guilty. No mention that selecting gender is highly discouraged in adoption, as it's not a baby store. And no mention of any thought process that led them to believe that adoption, having a baby that was "obviously different," was a good choice after all.

Trite, trite, trite. God, I really hated this plot in the book.

It's interesting to see how donor material is treated in fiction. While I wasn't expecting it, Truly, Madly, Guilty was fairly realistic and sensitively handled. The Things We Wish Were True was not. It was like the worst of soap opera plotlines, and treated like it was totally along the realm of possibility, and that that scenario was something a marriage could overcome, no problem. Oh, and they have no intention of ever telling their son that he is not biologically his father's, ever, so I'm sure that will work out great long term when he finds out (because you always find out)...and it makes me worried about their approach to adoption.

Really, I need to get a grip, because I am angry about a completely fictional marriage and a completely fictional group of people, but I just thought it played into so many things about donor and adoption (heritage doesn't matter, pretend there's not a difference, deception is okay if it gets you the family you desire). It's that whole "desperate infertile woman" thing, but I guess I have to give credit that the author also included a "desperate infertile man," something you don't see too often in fiction.

Read at your own risk. I would recommend Truly, Madly, Guilty as Liane Moriarty is a tremendous writer, so skilled at interweaving multiple perspectives around the same event. Just know that donor egg is a big (although not the biggest) part of it.

Personally, I would skip The Things We Wish Were True entirely. Although there was one quote that I really appreciated, about the only thing that I took away of value from the book:

"...there were things she wished were true, and there was what was actually true. She was learning that there was usually a great distance between the two."

That I can understand and find highly, highly realistic.


  1. OK. I'm here, but I popped down to the comments section at your spoiler alert, just in case I read either of these books.

    I'll come back and read your post if that's the case.

    1. Okay, sounds good! I really recommend Truly, Madly, Guilty. The other one is kakadoodoo in my opinion. :)

  2. LOL at your description of what reading is like. I recently described it in a similar way: allowing other people to rent space in my brain for a while.

    Canada has similar laws to Australia re: donor gametes and surrogacy. (I don't know enough details for further comparisons). We have a loophole however: we can buy donor gametes from the USA. Which makes the law seem....I dunno, kind of a sham. But whatever. When we were considering donor eggs, I remember Dr Cotter encouraging us to find a fresh donor: "You may be surprised at how willing people are to help" or words to that effect. But we decided not to go that route pretty quick, partly because we don't know anyone who meets the criteria well enough to ask, and....sooooo awkward. Also while I'd be open to meeting a donor, we didn't like the idea of the person being someone in our lives, for much the same reasons as the characters on the book imply. No judgment whatever on people who can make an arrangement with a family member or friend work, but for us it felt much less intimidating to buy frozen eggs (I'm sure if we had gone through with that plan, or (gulp) do so in the future, I'll find plenty there to mull over, but at the the time it seemed more straightforward, more like a fertility treatment and less like an arrangement that would radically redefine our relationship with someone.)

    The second book you describe, eek! I'm sure it happens that people cheat in order to get pregnant. Probably not something most people would admit to, and hopefully not wide spread. But that plot sounds so contrived. Makes me glad you read it so that I never have to lol!

    1. Oh wow, that is so interesting! How strange to outlaw a practice but have the caveat that you can do it across borders. Importing of egg donor use, sort of. Yeah, anything that involved asking people we knew to be a part of this was a bit too close for comfort for us. I'm with you on the awkward piece, although I know people who did it that way. I think they would say it was awkward, too.. :)

      Ha! Glad to save you a book that seemed great until that little gem showed up. :)

  3. Wow. The second book must have been hard to read. I probably would curse the book while continuing reading it. I would have hated the plot too. Does not make sense whatsoever. It was entertaining to read your description of it though. I probably will never touch that book.

    Meanwhile, I am still reading the first couple of chapters of State of Wonder....

    1. I think I had an incredulous and pissy face on the whole time once that subplot revealed itself. Ew. Oh, I hope you are enjoying State of Wonder! The infertility subplot didn't bother me almost at all in that one! I still think about it.

  4. Thanks for the recommendations (& warnings!). I share your dislike of outlandish names with creative spellings. How do you even pronounce a name like "Bryte"?? Is it "Bright" or "Brit" or "Brita" or...?? :p