By Nick Mancusi ’10

When terrorists attack a crowded Jerusalem café, a gay couple is thrust into parenthood.

[Novel] An inciting incident, more gruesome than most: Daniel Rosen’s twin brother, Joel, and Joel’s wife are killed in a terrorist attack at a crowded café. They’ve stated in the past that if anything should ever happen to them, they’d want Daniel to take care of their two children, Gal and Noam.

However, the parents of the deceased mother, themselves Israeli children of the Holocaust, think the children would be better off with them, and Daniel’s own parents think their home might be best. A further complication: the children live in Israel, where, Daniel quickly learns, the state can have a stronger say in awarding custody of displaced children than even the will of the parents.

Judith Frank, Professor of English and Elizabeth W. Bruss Reader

At his side, Daniel’s committed boyfriend, Matt (oh, that’s another complication: being a gay couple does not make their efforts to adopt any easier) has reservations not only about his own ability to raise children but also about their relationship in general.

This is the dramatic Gordian knot at the heart of All I Love and Know, the second novel from Judith Frank, English professor at Amherst since 1988. Many of these themes and conceits have gone largely, if not entirely, untreated by fiction until now, and their attendant drama is original and captivating.

But Frank (left) is also interested in the most basic emotional underpinnings of these overtly political gestures, and it’s when she allows her characters to pause and assess their internal states that her writing becomes most incisive.

Frank is both an identical twin and a mother of twins. Here she is on the suddenly severed connection between Daniel and Joel:

[Matt] rocked him for a long time, thinking about Daniel walking around in Joel’s clothes, about the two of them in the womb together, how they’d been together before they were even human. They’d started out breathing that same element together, their tiny astronaut bodies floating, bumping against each other in silent salutation…

And here’s Frank on the visceral gut-punch of grief that, if less well-rendered, would have left the novel a lovely house with no foundation:

In private, they would be shaving or brushing their teeth when their knees would buckle, and they would cry out. Each time it shocked them, to be so thoroughly felled. Joel and Ilana came in and out of their dreams, stunned and bleeding and weeping and begging for help, or miraculously alive and wondering what the fuss was all about.

After the highly charged first half of the book, with its musings on the political positions of Israel and the potential historical ironies therein, sexual politics and civil rights in America and abroad, the problem of modern terrorism and the long shadow of the Holocaust, the story zooms sharply to an unassuming home in familiar Northampton, Mass. Custody of the children having been won, the courtroom drama concluded, the problems become almost exclusively domestic. The changing of a diaper is more pressing than the subversion of heteronormativity, the cooling of affection more of a crisis than human rights abuses in the West Bank. (All of this plays out, by the way, on perhaps the most accurately and hilariously recreated representation of Northampton ever set to the page.)  

We watch, then, the death of one idea of parenthood and the triumph of another. The addition of children to the lives of Matt and Daniel fails to sublimate their frustrations into any larger meaningfulness; all of their problems remain, and their relationship is tested to its limits.

But parenthood also brings them closer to the messy, inconvenient, excruciating and utterly beautiful business of being human. Their ability to feel, for better and for worse, is heightened, and it’s the ways in which these two people, endowed with new vulnerabilities, explore their strange new world that make this book such a worthwhile read.

A writer once said that to have a child is to “decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Sometimes, the decision is made for you.

Photo by Samuel Masinter ’04