Sometimes the simplicity of a traditional love story can be profound. Expand the players to three, and this love story remains traditional, complicated only by expected shades of conflict. Open that up to more than three people, keep it within the confines of the expected struggles that come for any two people when trying to give birth to and raise a child, and the struggle to maintain a consistent, understandable narrative can crush a novel’s aspirations.
Gina Frangello’s Every Kind of Wanting is a strong, complex narrative about three families caught in a web where wants and needs don’t always seamlessly intersect. Where she might fall a little short in maintaining a strong, upward narrative drive where the voice is immediately recognizable, Frangello creates a literary version of the primal, impulsive, and often lethal consequences of how striving for life as a parent at all costs without considering consequences. Those consequences can leave aftershocks reverberating for years.
A capsulized summary of the characters involved and the plot they launch is, on paper, a little convoluted. Miguel, a Venezuelan native, and Chad, an apparently happy and successful real estate titan, are a couple living in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore looking to have a child. Chad’s sister Gretchen offers one of her eggs, and the search for a surrogate to carry the child seems to start and stop with Miguel’s friend, Emily. She’s in her early ’40s, already a mother of two boys, and married to an Irish playwright named Nick.
The surrogacy is a risk at her age, but there’s also risk in Gretchen’s egg donation. She and her husband, Troy, have a son named Gray, whose personality seems to put him somewhere on the autism spectrum. Add to this mix Miguel’s sister Lina, a former addict and stripper, who plunges into an affair with Nick and tries (with varying degrees of success) to deal with trauma from her past.
This premise, and the extent to which this cast of characters has to deal with their own issues (cultural, ethnic, sexual, economic), can be exhausting, and the reader’s willingness to follow through with this story more often than not depends on their ability not to suspend disbelief so much as to forgive indulgences. For example, the novel starts with “Act III: Private Beasts”. Marguerite Duras provides the epigraph: “Very early in my life, it was too late.” We don’t know Lina, the voice of these first few pages, as she addresses Nick (another person we’ve yet to meet), but it’s in these pages Frangello provides the first of her many themes. Lina notes to Nick, the playwright, “…all empathy involves a kind of method acting.” In other words, these two characters we meet first are setting the stage for the rest of the players. Miguel (Lina’s brother) and Chad might want a child and have a right to one, like any committed couple, but they are no different from anybody else in that their appearance of concern about the issues complicating the lives of others on their radar screen might not always be coming from the heart.
By the time we officially start, with “Act I: The Community Baby”, Frangello is able to establish a rhythm in which she allows the players to share the narrative every few pages. It takes a while to understand who might be talking and where the story is going, but eventually, it becomes clear. We meet Gretchen, her husband Troy, and their son Gray. Things are equal parts strained and strange in this small family, only to get more complicated after we meet Miguel, partner of Gretchen’s brother Chad. (Though the novel was published in 2016, the present-day sections seem to be set in 2009/2010, before full Marriage Equality rights in the United States.) Miguel’s section is long and involved, taking us back to Caracas, trouble during childhood, his lesbian sister Lina, their sister Isobel, and others. It’s a rich backstory that might have been served better had it been allowed a separate platform. That said, learning this background is important for a full appreciation of the novel by the time we reach the end.
The complications developed in this arrangement are confronted with incredulity and humor. Emily’s husband Nick, the Irish playwright, tells Lina (Miguel’s sister, with whom he’ll eventually have an affair), “My wife’s having a baby, but don’t worry. It’s not mine.” It’s a line Nick speaks to the group, all the members of this “Community Family”, and as a playwright/ actor he knows how to deliver the drama. Miguel isn’t sure how to take the implications of this line, isn’t sure if Nick is fully on board, but Frangello assures us that “…everyone laughs, except Lina, who drags from the cigarette and seems, in her strange way, to have already taken this random development as a foregone conclusion.”
Every Kind of Wanting is a novel about parenting as much as desire. Nick believes “Our children are never ours. We belong to them, but they belong to people not yet born.” For Gretchen, the questions also expand to the very notion of truth, which she believes “…floats on the surface of things, with subtext beneath, hanging off the various words like a diagrammed sentence.” Still in Act I, and back to a section devoted to Lina, we read a long, involved account of time with her ex-girlfriend Bebe: “They [Bebe’s academic colleagues in the local college English Department] believed my working there [at a strip club] meant I was a sexual outlaw, like someone Kathy Acker would write about, or at least like Madonna…” Earlier in this section, Lina, still musing about her time with Bebe, tells us:
“It was… almost as though she were Simone DeBeauvoir, and had written a book, a treatise on our own lives-and I were Nelson Algren, and had publicly trashed her in a scathing review.”
These discursive sections from Lina are illuminating and interesting, but they serve more to distract from any unified theme in this novel. Frangello has created a forum for these characters, but such intelligent name-dropping from Lina simply makes us want to hear more from her in a separate venue.
Things fall apart during “The Community Baby”. Gretchen’s marriage dissolves. She sees herself as Mildred Pierce, staring longingly through a window from the street outside at her autistic child Troy as he leads his life without her. Tragedy strikes Miguel’s family by the end of this section, and we enter “Act II: Communists in The Funhouse”. Jean Rhys provides the epigraph: “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.” Anger surfaces and legal action commences like an endless ping-pong game. Terms like preeclampsia and the BRCA gene are introduced but not fully detailed as the characters and readers wait for the pregnancy to come to term. “There are parts of every story that don’t fit,” Lina tells us. “The loose threads of a psyche, of a body, that won’t pull taut.” It’s a little frustrating to read characters providing such sound observations within the context of a full, sprawling narrative that could have benefited from more judicious editing.
Frangello’s literary aspirations are noble in Every Kind of Wanting. She wants her characters to deal with issues from 30 years prior, to tie up loose ends while starting new lives. “Death is a battle cry,” Miguel notes. “A predictable pattern of vultures fighting over remains.” The key to this story does not seem to be the birth of this “Community Baby” so much as one first Generation Venezuelan-American family coming to terms with scars from the past. The in vitro fertilized baby is not incidental as much as additional. If Frangello’s goal is to leave the reader frustrated that loose ends are left unresolved, and that life will not always provide understandable resolutions, she proves successful.
In “Act IV: Strong’s Landing” the final section of Every Kind of Wanting, we jump ahead to three years after the end of the truly powerful main conclusion. Nick imagines he and the family are like “…some Ann Beattie story. Pretty-but-faded middle-aged people engaging in what Lina would call ‘quaint WASP activities like softball in the backyard, the smell of barbecued meat wafting in the air.” It’s an effectively literary allusion for characters that prove equal parts compelling, touching, and insufferable. There is loss in this finalé, touching and sad, but it’s complicated with financial remunerations, acrimony. and the presence of a three-year-old child who was just being born by the end of Act II. It’s life.
Frangello’s Every Kind of Wanting is an ambitious, sprawling narrative with sub-plots that should have been allowed separate lives. It’s complicated, modern, intense, and — in spite of the numerous goals that aren’t always reached — ultimately a rewarding experience.