A Theory of Relativity

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In A Theory of Relativity Jacquelyn Mitchard revisits the Upper Midwest and the theme of violently disrupted family relationships which she handled so masterfully in The Deep End of the Ocean (1996). This time it is a sudden death which shatters an extended family. One-year-old Keefer Nye has been losing her mother to cancer since before she was born. Knowing this loss is imminent, still no-one around her is prepared for the catastrophe that opens the novel: a devastating car accident in which not one but both her parents perish. The orphaned baby is immediately the focus of an anguished custody battle as well as a national controversy.

Keefer is already essentially at home with her mother’s close-knit family. But it is a family that was created by adoption, not birthright. Should ties of blood ultimately supersede kinship bonds forged by loving choice? If not, why does the law say different? Come what may, Keefer, like her mother and uncle, will perforce grow up to “date her origins not from conception but from inclusion.”

Gordon McKenna, Keefer’s uncle, finds himself thrust to the forefront of the ensuing maelstrom. Gordon’s dependence on concrete facts for his salvation has tended to unnerve other people. As a scientist, he has been trained to expect a certain set of results from a certain set of actions. In a court of law, though, it seems it is the very facts which will be his undoing. Theories of relativity may need revision and, in the end, it is not the courts which will ultimately decide the fate of his niece.

Set without sentiment or condescension in small-town Wisconsin, this drama of valid and conflicting claims is played out with the vivid, cinematic quality characteristic of Mitchard’s writing. As in her earlier novels, here again the author has grippingly combined vibrant, large-as-life characterization with a suspenseful tale of human emotions.