The first “Surrogate” is a mystery, a family story and quite a trick – Twin Cities
I could feel him looking at me. I didn’t know where to start. While I was holding her, he had decided my turn had come, and he had taken the baby from my arms and had given it to Cally. He had touched Cally’s shoulder. And I didn’t like the way he looked at her; it was like she was the mother, not me. As he said Good job. The simple fact was that he had had a baby with this woman, not with me, and I was supposed to be happy about it.
Is Toni Halleen’s first novel “The Surrogate” a mystery, a thriller, a family story? That’s all of the above, and it’s one hell of a trick.
It starts with a young woman named Cally packing her one-day-old baby, throwing the child at her ex-boyfriend standing in the snow, then jumping out of the hospital window. They take off in the cold winter night heading north to a cabin where, Cally says, she just wants a few more days with her baby before handing her over to the parents, Ruth and Hal, for whom she was the surrogate.
Her ex is Digger, with whom she has had an intermittent relationship for years. He is surprised by this whole adventure, wondering why he answered the late night call from his former girlfriend, whom he had not seen in months, asking her to come and pick her up from the hospital. . No mention of a baby.
Hal and Ruth are newlyweds who decided to hire a surrogate because Ruth desperately wants a baby. Hal has two teenage sons from a previous marriage and isn’t so eager to take over childcare again, but he wants his wife to be happy.
The story is told from the perspective of all four characters, and it’s hard to say who to root for as Hal / Ruth and Cally fight over the baby. Hal is a calm and good-humored lawyer; Ruth is the hardest character to love. A journalist in her forties, she almost suffocated Cally during pregnancy, taking the young woman to childbirth classes, watching what she eats and watching her husband when he drew up the legal contract. Later we learn that he has decided not to impose some significant restrictions.
The first third of the novel seems predictable: will Cally escape? But then the story takes an abrupt turn when the baby is no longer in the cabin Cally and Digger are staying in and Cally doesn’t know where she is.
Soon Hal and Ruth, along with Cally, are looking for the newborn baby. Ruth, a Type-A, is almost mad with fear, accusing her husband of not writing adoption papers carefully enough and of trying to interview so many people in the hospital about safety that she asked to leave.
While the reader feels sympathy for Cally, Ruth is the most unfriendly one but also the character whose emotions are closest to the surface. The baby is legally her daughter, but hospital staff and others are treating her (according to her) like something is wrong with her for using a surrogate. Also, since the insemination used Cally’s egg and Hal’s sperm, Ruth has no biological connection to the child, which leaves her out.
As more is revealed about each character, the reader’s sympathies come and go – with the exception of Digger, who calls the child “the package” and “the monster.” But he also has his reasons.
There’s a somewhat contrived but exciting showdown at the hospital, and it would be a spoiler to reveal what’s going on.
It is evident from reviews on Goodreads and other websites that this is a controversial book that readers have strong feelings about due to their beliefs about surrogacy and motherhood.
Halleen, who lives in Minneapolis, earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota and won the Loft’s Mentor Award in Fiction. His writings have appeared in literary journals.
The author will present his novel at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 1 at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls. Registration required at: eventbrite.com/e/toni-halleen-presents-the-surrogate-registration-183793811237. Waiting list only.