Book Review: A Theory of Relativity by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Family ties can be forged in a multitude of ways. Many families are bound by genetics. Others come together through commitments and choices. Jacquelyn Mitchard’s moving novel, A Theory of Relativity, explores the often-complicated nature of family bonds and, through the story of one family’s incredible journey, shows us how family love and tragedy have equal power to change lives forever.
The story opens with a tragedy so intense it’s almost unbearable to read. Gordon McKenna receives the news that his older sister, Georgia, and her husband, Ray Nye, have been killed in a car accident, leaving their one-year-old daughter Keefer an orphan. The McKenna and Nye families, reeling from the shock of losing Georgia and Ray, are now faced with ensuring Keefer’s welfare. Twenty-four-year-old Gordon already has a close bond with his niece and is prepared to become her primary caretaker, a role that he had talked about with his sister and believes was assigned to him in Georgia and Ray’s will.
In fact, before dying in the crash, Georgia had been battling aggressive breast cancer and was not expected to survive, so Gordon’s preparations to become Keefer’s guardian were more than just theoretical. The close-knit McKenna family believes that Keefer belongs with them, since she has been raised among them, in Wisconsin, while most of Ray’s family lives hundreds of miles away, in Florida. So the McKennas take for granted that Gordon will adopt Keefer, until, on the day of the funeral, Gordon is visited by a lawyer who tells him that Georgia and Ray revoked the will weeks before the accident. Suddenly, Keefer’s custody is anything but certain.
Ray’s cousin Delia and her husband Craig, who do live in Wisconsin, come forward with a legal petition to adopt Keefer, and Gordon counters with a petition of his own. Each side has factors in their favor: Delia and Craig can provide a traditional nuclear family, while Gordon, a young bachelor living in an apartment, may be seen as less stable a parent. But Gordon has an undeniable bond with Keefer; she barely knows Delia and Craig. Delia also suffers from a chronic health condition that can be debilitating. The McKennas head into the legal proceedings hopeful that their side will prevail.
But then a twist emerges. Gordon and Georgia were adopted, a fact of their family story that, to this point, has had little to no bearing on their lives. But now, taking advantage of some very specific wording in a state statute regarding a relative filing for adoption, Delia and Craig argue that their claim to Keefer supersedes Gordon’s because, as Ray’s first cousin, Delia is related to Keefer by blood, while Gordon, because he is adopted, is not. Because the law uses the term “blood relative,” the judge follows it to the letter and gives initial custody to Delia and Craig. The McKennas then mount a campaign to change the law, and the legal battle that ensues, with little Keefer in the center, threatens to tear both families apart.
Mitchard is a master of domestic fiction. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, became famous as the first selection in Oprah Winfrey’s book club and was made into a feature film. A Theory of Relativity is an equally masterful book, offering up a heart-wrenching and triumphant tale you won’t soon forget.