The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Article published on March 12, 2012.

The title refers to the Chinese belief that people who are destined to be together are connected by an invisible red thread. This belief is treasured by the protagonist, Maya Lange, who runs an adoption agency of the same name with an almost spiritual fervour. The book splits itself into segments; alternating between telling the stories of the Chinese parents who give their daughters up for adoption and the American couples who adopt them; the people at the opposite ends of the thread. The Chinese stories are each contained within one section which functions as a kind of short story, almost, inserted into the main narrative. There is just one for each child, telling the stories of the parents and the reasons they have for placing their babies up for adoption. They are slightly romanticised figures; most stories depict a mother unwilling to give up her child but forced to due to circumstances out with her control. Hood herself calls them ‘the brave women who abandon their children in the hope of giving them a better life’. This is of course true in many cases, but there is a sense of a slight bias here. The stories of the different couples, and Maya herself, constitute the main body of the narrative. We meet them, as she does, for the first time at an ‘orientation’ meeting at the adoption agency, and as the novel progresses we are introduced to the intricacies of their lives and relationships and the reasons why they arrived at ‘The Red Thread’.

It is the personal relationships between the characters which maintain our interest, as well as the story of the somewhat enigmatic protagonist Maya. We know there has been some kind of traumatic event in her past, and that ‘somewhere, there were records about everything’ which stop her from adopting a child herself. While waiting to learn what this is, we are also witness to the relationships of the other couples. For the arrogant investment banker Nell who gets everything she wants, life is a ‘to do’ list which must be checked off. Her husband Benjamin seems dragged along by her relentless pursuit of motherhood. Sophie and Theo’s relationship also seems characterised by her desire for children, which overshadows everything else, leaving him thinking that ‘decisions got made without him knowing it’. For Susannah and Carter the problem is the same; he is desperate for another child and she is not, due to her inability to connect to the disabled child they have. Again for Emily and Michael; he has a child from a previous marriage and is not particularly driven to have any more. Brooke has to persuade her husband Charlie that having a baby means a lot to her. The issue of children is a contentious one for each couple and one which seems to be driving them apart rather than bringing them together. The thread metaphor is apt here; for some couples it looks as though their lives are unravelling through this process rather than being bound closer together.

Throughout the book Hood is consciously trying to tug on our proverbial heart strings; depicting the loss and suffering of the Chinese families yet making us hope that the American couples get their daughters. It is light and easy to read and the predicaments of the characters are enough to keep the reader’s interest. Hood explores the different problems faced in marriage and how consuming the desire for a child can be. Sometimes people feel incomplete without a child, and The Red Thread tries to offer an uplifting tale about finding meaning through adoption. For me, the interest lies in the problems each couple have and whether or not they resolve them. There is something morally disconcerting about using a baby to patch up marital differences however, and the reader is left with a sense that perhaps all will not be rosy for these couples once the eventual high of adoption wears off. What Hood is trying to convey is that the bond between parent and child is greater than any other, perhaps due to her own experience. Three years after the death of her daughter she adopted a Chinese baby, as Maya eventually does, and discovered that she could ‘love again’. The novel is unfailingly sentimental and romanticised, but it is very readable and, if you have a box of tissues by your side, then Hood achieves what she set out to do. If not, then you’re left with a novel which makes you think about how important having a family is, and whether or not it should overshadow every other consideration.

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