Who knew that Edgar Allan Poe was given to a foster family at age two, that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was raised by an uncle, that Friedrich Nietzsche, René Descartes and Isaac Newton were cared for by their grandmothers, or that Elizabeth I was adopted by a baron who would later try to take her as his wife? All of these facts are recounted by Ashley Nelson Levy in her debut novel Immediate Family, an absorbing read that explores the question of parentage and legacy in a way that feels fresh and innovative.
Setting the book apart is the author’s interest in adopted children, the way their lives differ from those who grow up in their birth families, even when all parties are trying their hardest to make things work. The book is narrated in the second-person voice, by a woman in her late 30s to her adopted younger brother Danny, on the eve of his wedding.
There has been an unexpected phonecall, asking her to give a speech. The tone relating this incident is at once intimate and aloof: “Last night I told you today might be hard for us … When I saw your name I wondered if you were calling to apologise, to set things right between us, but instead you cut right to the question. This is exactly the way you said it: Will you give me a speech.”
Along this road to redemption, there are awakenings for the narrator herself that add complexity to the book
This early shot of mystery works to immerse the reader in the fraught sibling dynamics from the outset, and to cover the cracks of a literary device that might otherwise feel forced. As the narrator tries to quickly piece together a speech, she goes back to the origin story of the family, how she grew up in California as an only child, until age nine, when her parents, in their 40s, adopted a child from an orphanage in rural Thailand after years of red tape and setbacks.
The details of this time are brilliantly real: the endless wait, the necessary political campaigning, the numerous social workers and medical professionals, the logistics of the trip to Thailand, how Danny, aged three, is removed from everything he’s ever known, how he initially fears his new father, how the first six months back in America are full of tantrums that seem, in their poignancy and foreignness, to hold the house to ransom.
As Danny grows up, there are more problems: grappling with English, an uncertain sense of self, the loss associated with the fading of early memories, the racism he encounters in the schoolyard: “One day you came home and asked if you were a n***er.” By Danny’s early teens, the stress manifests as an addiction to spending that continues into adult life, where he repeatedly steals from his parents, getting caught in the bleak cycle of repenting and reoffending, “as if the name on the card didn’t connect to the man [their father] you loved, as if pocketing the cash would mean you wouldn’t have to ask for more help”.
Her debut holds its own among other fine novels with similar preoccupations
The conceit of the speech, it turns out, is a way for the narrator to break down her brother's story, in order to see if she can forgive him the pain he's caused their family. Along this road to redemption, there are awakenings for the narrator herself that add complexity to the book. Nelson Levy's choice to mix in facts about real-life adoptees, as mentioned above, and also to discuss the fates of fictional adoptees such as Jane Eyre, Heathcliff or Dickens' orphans, gives a universality to the learnings. Quotes from Adrienne Rich and Roland Barthes, among others, do likewise, the reportage quality to these inserts contrasting nicely with the closeness of the narrative voice.
Stylistically, the present-tense narrative in Immediate Family is neglected in favour of the family’s past, which means that momentum flags at times, but a second storyline documenting the narrator’s battle with infertility counters this somewhat and contains some of the book’s most memorable passages: “This is the part that began to haunt me: that the pain had blurred the desire. Do I still want this? … I could make my body just a body again, rather than some kind of lonely spaceship, trawling the darkest spaces for new life.”
From California, Nelson Levy received her MFA from Columbia University. Her debut holds its own among other fine novels with similar preoccupations, among them Sara Freeman's Tides, Alex Hyde's Violets and particularly Anna Beecher's Here Comes the Miracle, with its tender tale of sibling bonds. In Immediate Family, the relationship is complicated by adoption, an age gap and addiction, but ultimately this is a compassionate, charitable story about family ties, blood or otherwise, that will always bind.