- Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama
Reading Adoption by Marianne Novy is an unusual and notable study of works that might not be traditionally considered "orphan fiction" but which have always been attractive to children and young teens because of the variations on the "family romance" they contain. Novy starts with the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, proceeds through late romances of Shakespeare, surveys British novels from Fielding's Tom Jones to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, includes a chapter on Edward Albee and other contemporary American and some English dramatists, and ends with Barbara Kingsolver. Novy's approach undoubtedly heralds a more nuanced view of nontraditional families in literature and literary criticism, as not only open adoption but also blended families, same sex parents, and other alternative family units continue to grow more numerous in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Novy is concerned with the way ideas about adoption are shaped by cultural experience. To balance this "stereotypical" view, we could say, she sometimes brings in her own experience.
Despite attention to largely canonical texts, Novy's approach is hardly culturally narrow, for in bringing up issues like Daniel Deronda's Jewish heritage and novels like Kingsolver's Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven with its [End Page 395] abandoned Cherokee girl "Turtle," she raises questions about transnational, transracial and transethnic adoption. Although Novy covers a wide range of literature, she offers interesting insights into the ways genre might affect the ability to fully portray an issue like adoption: "Is there any special affinity between adoption and nonrealistic modes of drama? . . . Institutions that require erasure of the past indeed lend themselves to portrayal in a mode different from usual conventions of realism" (186). In contrast, "The genre of the novel provides an opportunity to develop the possibilities of adoption plots much further than the drama or the fairy tale" (89).
Novy is a precise and skillful writer who, while covering a lot of territory and works, always brings discussion back around to the important themes of the works she invokes and deduces what final relevance the theme of adoption and the concept of parentage has in the work at hand. In particular, the chapter on George Eliot with its exploration of her relationship as foster mother to George Henry Lewes's sons gives fresh insight into Eliot's works. Reading Adoption in fact exemplifies feminist theory in action by bringing in issues of family and personal life that most radically impact women's lives—pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering—and because the issue of adoption, specifically, presents women and stereotypes of women in every position of society, it would fit a course on feminism as well as feminize a more standard course on the history of the novel. Roughly a third of the book is devoted to theater, and because Novy offers original insights on contemporary dramatists (though they are very briefly considered) like Caryl Churchill, Carol Schaefer, Wendy Wasserstein, Kristine Thatcher, Jane Anderson, Lanford Wilson, and John Olive – for instance, the fact that "The focus on birth fathers in these plays partly reflects the difficulty women playwrights are still having in getting their work performed" (173)—Reading Adoption is relevant to studies of drama as well.
Novy's book would be a very useful central text in a children's literature class, too, and it is requisite for a high school and most certainly college or university library. It would also serve educators who have contact with adoptive children or children in unconventional family situations. It provides a fresh perspective on canonical texts and authors that may seem to have lost their relevance or interest to today's young students and that literary critics are so used to reading they may have dismissed the eternal interest of the topic of the family romance. Though not specifically addressed to educators, Novy hopes that "if teachers in grade school, high school, and college can teach literature with more sensitivity to literary adoptees' situation, their students living in variant family...