|Barbara Delinsky takes an intriguing “what if?” premise and turns it into an interesting yet less than fully engaging story. Dana and Hugh Clarke are a young couple who are joyfully anticipating the birth of their first child. Dana lost her mother at a young age and is eager to start a family, while Hugh is proud to be carrying on the legacy of a clan that can trace its roots back to the Mayflower. The birth goes smoothly, but their beautiful baby daughter has surprisingly dark skin. In fact, she looks distinctly African-American. And that’s when things start to fall apart.
There are several possible reasons for the Clarke baby’s unexpected appearance. Either Dana had an affair (the African American next door neighbor is a prime suspect), or there is an African-American ancestor in her family. Dana vehemently denies the former charge, and, since she never knew her father, cannot easily address the latter possibility. Although Hugh trusts Dana, he wants baby Lizzie to have a paternity test to silence the insinuations of his shocked Boston Brahmin parents. He also urges Dana to take steps to track down her father.
Because Dana wants Hugh to love their baby unconditionally, she initially resists his urgings. What was supposed to be the happiest time in her life has become a nightmare. Fortunately she has a source of solace and support in the regular customers at the yarn store owned by the grandmother who raised her. But as she reluctantly begins to explore her past, she finds answers she never expected that will cause her closest loved ones to re-examine their beliefs and prejudices.
Delinsky has made a career out of creating Women’s Fiction novels that combine social issues and insightful personal dynamics with romance. However, Family Tree is more successful as an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. The reader is first introduced to Hugh and Dana as Dana is about to give birth, so there are no background scenes portraying their first meeting or their falling in love. As a result there’s little investment in their relationship when it runs into trouble. The distinct lack of love scenes doesn’t help, although admittedly, since the entire novel takes place within the first two months of Lizzie’s life, numerous bouts of passionate sex would have been unrealistic.
It’s tough to root for the hero and heroine as a couple, and individually they fare little better. Hugh is a successful attorney who has a reputation for championing the underdog, which is fortunate because for much of the novel he acts like a complete jerk. His insistence on the DNA testing for Lizzie and his reluctance to send out birth announcements establish him as an unsympathetic character, and despite his pro bono work on a high stakes paternity case and his ultimate redemptive act (which takes place on page 355 of 358), he never regained my regard. Dana is easier to appreciate, but she never really came alive for me as anything but a template for the perfect mother. Perhaps she would have seemed more real if she had shown any signs of fatigue or uncertainty about her new role, but with the focus on the mystery of Lizzie’s heritage, the reality of the challenging first few months of motherhood is almost completely ignored.
Several subplots deal with love and parenthood from numerous different perspectives, and the presence of several racially diverse characters provide the opportunity for reflection on the status of racial equality in 21st century America. It’s a thought-provoking issue that raises tough questions: What would happen if you discovered as an adult that you are part African-American? Would it change the way you see yourself, or how others see you? Should you announce it to the world if it is less than visually obvious? Delinsky is in her element as she presents these complex issues without resorting to facile answers.
I read Family Tree in two sittings, turning the pages rapidly to uncover the mystery of Lizzie’s ancestry. But I didn’t feel much emotional payoff when Dana and Hugh reconciled. Bravo to Ms. Delinsky for tackling a difficult subject, but maybe next time she can remember her romance novel roots and give us characters that will touch our hearts as well as our minds.