“A Stranger Steps into the House”: On Ashley Nelson Levy’s “Immediate Family”

August 31, 2021   •   By Ryan Smernoff

Immediate Family

Ashley Nelson Levy

ASHLEY NELSON LEVY’S unflinching debut novel, Immediate Family, puts a fresh and culturally relevant spin on the theme of adoption in literature. In the Victorian literary canon, adoption plots turn out in one of two ways: the adoptee will be either an agent of harmony or chaos in their respective households. Unfortunately, post-Victorian literary traditions have not evolved far beyond this binary. Among the many problems that arise with such portrayals is their tendency to cast complex realities as reified motifs that few readers can relate to. “Look at any adoption plot,” says the unnamed narrator of Immediate Family,


and you’ll see the same picture: a stranger steps into the house to build it up or burn it all down. The absence of history, or the inability to rewrite it, keeps tensions high, that handful of blank years you can never take back. […] Where is the third option, of a house caught in an endless cycle? Composition, demolition, composition, demolition, composition, demolition.


Nuanced and generously rendered, Levy’s novel brings up issues — such as infertility, bullying, overt and subtle forms of racism, addiction, language barriers, and cultural misunderstandings — that often characterize the real experience of adoption but, for some reason, rarely find their place in literary portrayals. The result is a unique, gorgeously textured narrative that explores the boundaries of familial love.


Levy’s novel opens with a request: “Will you give me a speech.” Responding to this invitation from her adopted younger brother, Danny, the narrator agrees to give a toast at Danny’s wedding. However, as the big day draws closer, she still can’t find the right words. “[W]hat did I know about which facts should be collected or shed in the story of a person,” she wonders, struggling to adequately describe the complex connection she shares with her brother. “What right did I have to speak of your life?” In an effort to figure out what she will say, the narrator writes something like a letter to her brother (as a side note: contrary to the novel’s descriptive copy, which describes the novel as a lengthy missive, the text never identifies itself as a letter, nor do any of the book’s structural elements, aside from the second-person address to Danny, resemble an epistolary novel). This exercise grows into a sequence of heartfelt and often turbulent recollections.


Starting with the events leading up to her brother’s adoption, the narrator pieces together the most formative periods of her family’s life. At age nine, the narrator traveled with her family to Thailand to pick up three-year-old Danny. The family had, by that point, already spent five years waiting to be matched with a child. The narrator occasionally interrupts her own story with journalistic asides that provide real-world context for her family’s experience with adopting. In the following passage for example:


Transracial adoptions grew in the postwar boom with rising interest from white families. […] There were fewer public discussions around transnational adoption at this time, how a child from an Asian country, for example, might psychologically adjust to a white home, white still being the primary demographic for American adoptive parents due to money, access, and racial bias.


Because both transracial and transnational adoption are at work in the novel, this aside speaks directly to the drama of the main plot. There is, however, a downside to these digressions: though always informative and often delightful, the passages may slow the reader’s momentum. Yet, to Levy’s credit, they never fail to feed back into the story in illuminating ways.


The lack of public discourse about transnational adoption makes it easy for the family to build castles in the air about the child, as well as about all the ways in which they will make the child’s life better (Levy’s prose reflecting the savior complex that often exists among white American adoptive families). But these fantasies are immediately challenged when they first see Danny in the flesh: a malnourished child who is terrified of the father and prone to violent tantrums.


Let’s pause here for a moment. Danny’s traumatized state at the moment of his first meeting with the family appears to be angling Levy’s novel toward the “agent of chaos” plot. However, as if anticipating the reader’s expectations, Levy’s narrator gracefully pivots from her parents’ worried ruminations to another crucial moment in the timeline. We find the narrator, now in her mid-30s, struggling to conceive a child of her own and considering whether she and her husband should adopt. Where a less discerning storyteller might have followed a well-worn trajectory, Levy maneuvers the story to an unexpected moment of personal conflict for her protagonist.


At the heart of this conflict is the narrator’s infertility. Some of the richest moments in the novel are rooted in this narrative thread. “We looked up at the trees and though it saddened me to see them in bloom the breeze seemed to air out my insides.” Images such as these punctuate the novel, bringing out a rich convergence of beauty and heartache. As the narrator reflects on her fertility issues, she uses the space of her text to simultaneously confront her brother about his toxic relationship with money. In his teens, Danny develops a habit of stealing his parents’ credit cards and going on lavish spending sprees without any thought of the consequences. Angry and resentful, the narrator worries that Danny’s actions have put their parents in a troubling financial position, perhaps even delaying their retirement, and she is bewildered by the fact that her father insists on paying off Danny’s debt each time it happens. This results in a falling out between the siblings during a pivotal period in the narrator’s life.


Her estrangement from Danny notwithstanding, the narrator continues to insist upon her unwavering love for her brother. Again, the narrative returns to their childhood, where the narrator and Danny form a close bond, which is only deepened when she witnesses the ways her white suburban community responds to his presence. When their mother enrolls Danny in Catholic school, the narrator realizes for the first time, “the topographical map of your life became white very suddenly.” It is clear that the narrator and her family were entirely unprepared for the racism — both in its subtler expressions (“People were always telling you how much better off you were in America”) and in its more overt forms (“With you there were establishments to avoid, places that quieted when we walked in the door. There were parks where families stared in suspicion, churches, checkout lines, parking lots”) — that they would experience in the aftermath of Danny’s adoption. As the narrator puts it:


We didn’t know how to combat the racism that ran through our town, trampled into our home. Despite the counselors, the conferences, the paperwork, the questions we asked you directly, it was hard to understand how feelings got processed. And even though we loved one another, we’d return to our separate corners to cope.


The heartfelt bond with her brother expands the narrator’s understanding of her hometown, and how she and Danny experience it in fundamentally different ways. “I saw our town differently after you came,” she explains, “it was a difference I could still shed when I was alone. […] I could hide in the crowds at a time when it hurt to stick out. It was a relief to slip into the landscape, to erase myself. It was a relief that I could do it.” In other words, while the color of her skin afforded the narrator the privilege of blending in, her brother did not have that choice, and fitting in had been a constant struggle for him in the face of racism and bullying.


So, with all this (and more) in mind, how should the narrator proceed with her speech?


I’ll refrain from any additional spoilers, but there is one more element that is worth briefly noting. Immediate Family is rooted in the conviction that the written word is capable of remarkable things. With it, we can plumb the unknown and uncertain parts of our lives, and bridge gaps between otherwise disparate worlds. Danny’s wedding is at the silent center of the narrative, and the narrator is struggling with what to say in her speech. So where does she turn to find the right words? The blank page. Through writing, the narrator embarks on a moving journey of self-discovery, piecing together the joys and miseries of her life like a mosaic of found objects. She also discovers that her brother embodies the greatest challenge she and her parents have ever faced, as well as the solution to her fertility issues; in short, to the narrator, Danny’s adoption is the key to a depth of intimacy and emotional resonance that effectively shatters any simplified idea of love, family, betrayal, and trust. As a quick aside: although the quasi-epistolary second-person form is one of the novel’s strengths, the decision to avoid naming anyone but Danny throughout the text created a few unnecessary distractions. For example, when talking about her husband, the narrator often calls him “your brother-in-law,” which, though accurate, often felt awkward and, more importantly, disingenuous to an otherwise close and emotionally accessible form.


Uncertainty is a recurring theme throughout the narrative. In addition to its contribution to what I hope will be a much-needed shift in our understanding of adoption, Levy’s novel exemplifies the power of the written word to penetrate the unknowns within ourselves and between us. The truths that really matter are rarely found in isolation. All our loves, traumas, celebrations, and pet peeves are informed by uncountable preexisting circumstances and expectations that collect and simmer over lifetimes, yielding much of the psychological stew that makes up who we are. Boldly embracing life’s entanglements, Levy’s novel is a work of powerful, life-affirming generosity.


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Ryan Smernoff is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he teaches courses in Editing and Publishing.