Somebody's Baby by Elaine Kagan
(Harper Choice, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-061-01406-0
Somebody's Baby is a novel with multiple personalities. On the one hand, it's a Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden love. On the other hand, it's also a woman's search for identity. Despite the presence of two very dissimilar voices, it's an emotionally engaging read.

Part One of the novel is the first person narrative of Jenny Jaffe, a "good Jewish girl" from Kansas City. But Jenny is leading a secret life that most teenagers in 1959 would never dream of. Despite her parents' protests, Jenny is carrying on a wild, passionate love affair with a tattooed drifter named Will McDonald, who has a job at the gas station, a prison record, a quick temper and the immortal words Lets F*ck carved on his toes (no apostrophe -- somehow the incorrect punctuation is the most daring taboo to Jenny). Will may be a wild man, but he truly loves Jenny. He is the only person who listens to her and validates her dreams of becoming a dancer. But when Jenny discovers she's pregnant, the end of the affair is near. She and Will decide to run away together, but Will never shows up at their designated rendezvous. Jenny, her spirit broken, is sent away to a home for unwed mothers. Seven months later, she gives birth to a baby girl and puts her up for adoption.

Part Two takes place 35 years later in California, where Claudia Magers Morgan tries to pinpoint the source of her vague dissatisfaction and malaise. She is happily married to a nice guy and she has a beautiful three-year-old daughter. She's known since childhood that John and Margaret Magers were not her biological parents, but their love and reassurance that she was special prevented her from acting on any stray thoughts she had of finding her birth mother. But now she decides she wants to know the truth about her parentage. She wants to find the missing pieces of herself -- where did she get her physical and emotional characteristics, what might she have passed down to her daughter?

It always seemed as if everywhere she went she was searching, scanning face after face to find the face, the one that looked like her face. The tall one, the skinny one, there's a brunette over there...That nagging feeling that she'd left something, lost something, a haunting feeling that something was always missing but she couldn't remember what it was.

When she finds Jenny, she expects to get some answers, but she doesn't expect to trigger even more questions about her biological father. Soon Claudia realizes that Jenny and Will have unfinished business to resolve.

The first hundred pages of the novel are Jenny's story, and they are definitely the words of a dramatic, passionate, self-absorbed adolescent. She feels nothing but pure venom towards her mother, who is almost too one-dimensionally evil to be believed. Her voice was genuine, but I wasn't sure if I liked her. I did, however feel gut-wrenching empathy for her when she had to say goodbye to her newborn baby.

I was surprised by the abrupt change in tone and in voice -- from first person to third -- for Part Two, but I soon was totally entranced by Claudia's story and her mixed emotions about her search. The author perfectly captures the wonders and worries of an adoptive child about to confront a biological parent -- should she leave well enough alone? Is she hurting her adoptive parents? What if she finds out things she's better off not knowing? The answers she finds lead to a satisfying end to this subplot.

However, Part Three of the novel then returns to Jenny and Will's truncated love affair, and the novel lurches to an abrupt but romantic conclusion. Claudia's story is believable and realistic, but Jenny's and Will's is a fairytale romance broken up by a wicked queen. Their implied happy ending is hard to accept in this context -- it seemed out of place after experiencing Claudia's story.

If you're looking for a romance about love that lasts through years of separation and trial, you might enjoy Somebody's Baby. If you're looking for a piece of well-written women's fiction about an adopted woman's search for identity, you might enjoy Somebody's Baby. You'll find both in the same novel, which may confuse or satisfy you. Check it out and see how you react.

--Susan Scribner

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