I just re read this old Superromance after reading this essay by author Rebecca Rogers Maher. And, having stuck my oar in with a recommendation, I can’t possibly not review it now, can I?
Keeping in mind that Michael’s Family was published back in 1997 (no cell phones, which has some relevance during a couple of scenes), and that this is genre romance published by Harlequin, Ms Shay’s portrayal of the consequences of date rape feel quite realistic.
So, here goes:
Michael’s Family, by Kathryn Shay
The last thing widower Luke Rayburn expects–or welcomes–is his adopted son Michael’s request to find his birth mother. Sixteen years ago, the adoption was arranged by Luke’s mother and her closest friend, whose teenage daughter was pregnant. The two women agreed to cut all ties. Now the boy’s request has brought beautiful, haunted Meredith Hunter into their lives.
And with Meredith comes a secret that could destroy them all.
The blurb sets up the stage nicely. Michael is a pretty sensible and mature kid–for an almost seventeen year old boy. He is adopted, as is his best friend and neighbor, Julie Anne¹. His late adoptive mother, Sara, was delicate and overtly feminine, and her influence in the household is still deeply felt three years after her death. But Michael is growing up and his father, Luke, is determined to do whatever is best for him, so when Michael asks to meet his birth mother, Luke acquiesces–with reservations.
For the past sixteen plus years, Luke has given little to no thought to the woman to whom he owes this child of his heart. At the time of the adoption all he could feel was gratitude that the birth mother would give him and his wife such a gift–a healthy baby to love and raise. Now, fear of what Michael may find in his biological mother–a love stronger than what he feels for Luke, or vices and a dangerous lifestyle, either possibility scares Luke–vies with Luke’s determination to encourage Michael’s growth into a strong and responsible adult. And ever present is the question of why Meredith, who is clearly overwhelmed at this chance to know her child, would have given him up in the first place. Was she promiscuous? Careless? Simply too young to cope with the responsibility?
None of the above.
Michael is the result of date rape, and his conception changed Meredith’s life in ways no one could have predicted, or prevented.
At eighteen, Meredith was a star athlete with Olympic aspirations and a scholarship to a prestigious university. The world is her oyster until another athlete attacks her. Bringing charges against him not only doesn’t bring closure, it backfires. The university withdraws her scholarship when she can’t play–since she lost the trial, she’s “guilty of sexual activity that resulted in pregnancy.” (Makes you want to hit something, doesn’t it?)
The offspring of lawyers (their mothers met and became best friends while in law school Standford University), both Luke and Meredith are lawyers themselves–he a federal public defender, she a prosecutor. She is known as a champion for women’s rights, he defends anyone who cannot afford a lawyer–including sexual offenders. And since it was a public defender who got her rapist off the hook, there’s serious potential for conflict there alone.
To complicate matters even further, there’s immediate and strong mutual attraction between Luke and Meredith, both physical and emotional. For Meredith, the way Luke relates to her son, the depth of his caring and commitment, is tremendously attractive. For Luke, her strength, integrity and intelligence are irresistible. And so, despite knowing that a failed relationship between them would impact Michael’s life deeply, they are soon involved.
But–and here’s where this novel is relevant to the rape in fiction conversation–there is no magic cure for Meredith. While she has worked with a therapist for years and has been able to enjoy sex and have meaningful relationships with men in the years since, there are after effects. After a confrontation with Michael–who is, after all, a teenager–she has flashbacks to the rape. The first few times she and Luke start making love, she freezes up, tenses up, divorces herself a bit from what’s happening. In order to cope, she must keep at least part of herself separate and in control.
Luke is understanding and sympathetic, though he is not a fan of Meredith’s coping mechanism. That, after all, wa’s what he had to do throughout his marriage, because of Sara’s health–first, as she suffered from severe endometriosis, then through her battle with cancer. So while he is patient with Meredith, he is also determined to find a way for them to get past this and into full-hearted intimacy. Some would argue that this is another instance of the magic wang² curing any and all ills, except that something happens later in the story that brings Meredith’s coping mechanism back in full force. No magic cure, only a continuous process of healing.
There are a number of threads and socially relevant issues touched upon in the novel, and while I would have liked to see more exploration/development of some of them, I confess myself impressed that none of them feel to be included merely as plot devices.
For example, Ms Shay has both Michael and Julie Anne writing year long papers for a class. Michael’s focuses on American sexuality, and hilarious bits and pieces of his fictitious research are woven into the narrative to good effect. Fantasies, levels of desire, actual sexual practices. (By the by, I could only hope to read the source material😀 )
For her part, Julie Anne is writing about the rights of adoptive children–in this case, to learn the identities of their biological parents. This creates conflict with her own adoptive mother, whose fear of losing Julie Anne to her birth mother/parents is overwhelming. I enjoyed the exploration of the different choices Michael and Julie Anne make here. He, having lost his mother, struggles with whether his desire to get to know Meredith is disloyal to Sara’s memory. She, secure in herself and her place in her parents’ heart, feels no desire whatsoever to find out who her biological parents may be.
The judicial system in the US, specifically the rights of defendants in federal cases, also plays a part. There are a couple scenes in which Luke’s choices come, so to speak, under fire. Meredith is open about her inability to provide “the best defense possible” to someone she personally believed guilty as charged, while Luke is adamant in his belief that “public defense is the purest expression of law.” Despite truly believing this, Luke struggles with his professional choices because of its effect on Michael’s life–such as when people he’s defended successfully are later convicted of similar crimes.
An early scene brings up social mores and conventions on female behaviour. Michael calls Meredith home and a man answers. Both him and Luke jump to the conclusion that Meredith is sleeping around, and though Luke strives for impartiality, it’s clear to both Meredith and her brother–the man in question–that she’s been tried and convicted of promiscuity. Mind you, there is some emphasis on the fact that Meredith does not sleep around, but I liked that she basically tells Luke to shove his judgement–he has no right to judge her decisions or morals, period.
This novel is both a product of its time (seriously, no cell phones, VCRs, physically going to the library for research…) and ahead of it in its acknowledgement of issues.
And while I am not a fan of Ms Shay’s entire oveuvre, this one holds up quite well to the passage of time.
Michael’s Family gets a 7.50 out of 10.
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¹ I think this is the only Deux ex machina bit in the whole book, by the way.
² I believe credit for this expression goes to the Smart Bitches, but I’m not absolutely sure–please feel free to point me to the rightful source if I’m wrong.