Love or Morality. Which Would You Choose?
I like to think that most of us are basically decent people, that we try to live good lives and don't break the big rules, that we know right from wrong and act accordingly. How would you react if, one day and out of nowhere, the notion of what society and your brain say are right and good and just is completely at odds with everything you feel in your heart? Do you dig and scrape and expose the truth to the light, or do you bury it in a dark little corner of your soul and go on with the whisperings of your conscience mocking you from time to time? I can't say that I know what I'd do, but the idea of it makes for a very intriguing story in Lisa Scottoline's latest book, Look Again.
Ellen Gleeson is a talented and quick-minded newspaper reporter who met her son Will, abandoned and awaiting heart surgery, a couple of years before while researching a story at a local children's hospital. Ellen fell in love with Will, adopted and brought him home, and lives a happy if slightly chaotic life with him until one day a white card in the mail catches her eye - "Have You Seen This Child?" The missing boy, Timothy Braverman, was kidnapped at age one and stares out at Ellen from an age-progressed photo that matches the face of the little boy she tucks in at night. Ellen tries to hide the niggling fear that something is wrong in that tiny corner of her brain, but it keeps poking her with its sharp corners. Her mother's instinct screams at her to keep her child close and safe but her reporter's intuition drives her towards finding the truth, breaking apart the suspicion and shadows to find what is real. In covering the stories of two women, one who lost her children when her ex-husband absconded with them after a custody battle and another whose son was killed by a stray bullet in his own living room, Ellen feels the jagged edges of her love for her son scraping against the hollow, haunting feeling in her gut that something is not right and that another mother, somewhere, is looking for a little boy with a smile that matches Will's and blue eyes that shine at her like his.
As Ellen begins to peel apart the layers of Will's truth, and her own, she has to battle fear, paranoia, and pain, pushing aside everything else that matters, including her job. There's a somewhat worn subplot involving Ellen's attractive editor, but it's the only off note in the story. Scottoline keeps the pacing sharp as Ellen weaves her way through the smoke and mirrors of Will's origins, with likable, well-developed and witty characters and intelligent, realistic dialogue. It's a credit to Scottoline that she is able to create a story with so many shades of gray where there is no definite sense of right or wrong; she relies on the reader's imagination and emotions to decide where loyalties should lie. Both sides of the issue are treated fairly and evenly - if Will is, indeed, Timothy Braverman, Ellen will have to give him back; that is the law. Instead of letting her take an easy out, Scottoline pushes her heroine to ask the impossible questions and face the unfathomable idea that not only is her son not who she knows him to be, but neither is she, because at the core Ellen Gleeson is a mother. Everything else she has ever done is tempered by that simple fact. How can she be a mother if she loses her child? How can she not?
Again and again, I came back to the simple fact that there is no easy answer to a question like this. It's reminiscent of the judgment of Solomon: which mother should keep a child? The one who loved him first, or the one who loved him longest? The one who may have lost him through no fault of her own, or the one whose finding him was a miracle? Ellen is the only mother Will has ever known, but Carol Braverman may be the woman who carried him inside of her and brought him into the world. If Carol was the person who nursed Will and sang him to sleep as an infant, does that negate the fact that Ellen reads to Will, admires his preschool art projects, and watches him brush his teeth? There are no easy answers, and I found myself holding my breath from chapter to chapter as the book sped towards its conclusion, not sure what I would find when I got there. All in all, the author does a striking job of navigating the choppy and murky waters of a complex ethical issue while keeping it entertaining and engaging, mostly hitting just the right notes without taking away from the thoughtful tone of the subject matter. Each reader will draw his own conclusions, and I strongly appreciate that in a book. I like doing my own thinking, thank you very much, but I also want to enjoy the ride while I'm doing it.
Nicole Fuscia is a book critic for Pajiba. She lives in Philadelphia.