Book Review: The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark

But there are some cells that last a lifetime. Brain cells in the cerebral cortex start recording from conception and don’t stop until death. This is where your memory lives. Your thoughts. Your awareness. These cells carry with them every moment of your life—even the ones you’d rather leave behind.

In her debut novel, Julie Clark weaves together the fascinating reality of human genetics with the genuine, messy emotions of family, parenthood and friendship. Paige Robson is a geneticist who is in the middle of a groundbreaking study linking oxytocin production to paternal participation—essentially she has found a genetic link to why some men are terrible or absent fathers. Drawing heavily from her childhood and her own revolving door father, her work reflects the lasting impression parents leave on their children, and this is not the only part of her life where her past influences her present.

If nurturists were to study me, they’d say this is a learned behavior, that my childhood taught me to be disengaged and distant as a means of protecting myself. But if a nativist were to crack me open, maybe she’d see a genetic variance caused by the repeated heartbreak of a little girl who believed she would never be enough, so eventually, she stopped listening.

Yearning for a child of her own but unwilling, or unable, to find the right partner, Paige chose to conceive through a sperm donor. This choice gave her Miles, a whip-smart, science-obsessed boy who, now at eight years old, is seeking impossible answers to the questions Paige has fielded his entire life: questions about his father, a man who, by her choice, and the clinic’s requirement, remains unknown to them just facts and statistics on a sheet of paper.

This is what they don’t tell you at the sperm bank,a s you sit in a small office with your genetic counselor, thinking you can  pick a donor and then forget about him. That someday, you might find yourself hiding inside a tent at a camping warehouse, trying to explain to your son why you dropped him into a fatherless life. I think of my own father and wish I could tell Miles that even when you know who you dad is, there are still thousands of ways he can fail you.

One unforeseen consequence of Paige’s conception choice is the everlasting stigma towards single mothers and boys without present fathers which leads to relentless teasing a bullying by the other boys and Miles’ school and the persistent outsider feeling Paige experiences. That is until one evening changes both hers and Miles lives forever. Jackie, Aaron and their son Nick fit seamlessly into Paige’s and Miles’ lives, providing the companionship and laughter that both so deeply craved. That is, until unexpected revelations threaten to tear them apart.

The central theme of this story lays in the parent-child relationship as we see played out between Paige and her son, Miles and the father figures in his life, and between Paige and her own father. And beyond that we see just how friends and partners can fill the void, whether it be actual or perceived, to surround those who need it with the love they deserve. With equal parts humor and heartache, The Ones We Choose, examines the role of family in the traditional and progressive senses and exposes they myriad ways those who love us and whom we love can surprise us, uplift us, hurt us and support us.

Genetic attraction is a trope that shows up every now and then in pop culture—two people drawn to each other for unexplained reasons, only to discover they’re related. Proponents describe it as a phenomenon that happens when the emotional bond between a parent and child or between siblings is disrupted, that when they meet, there’s an actual biological response in their cells.

So while most scientists think genetic attraction is a fuzzy science that has no real merit other than anecdotally—I find myself wondering if, for humans, genetic attraction manifests differently. We can’t smell our relatives but maybe—somehow—we can sense them.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Gallery Books.

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