A lawyer-turned-writer probes the complex nature of parenthood

Jacqueline Friedland’s new book was inspired by a quirk of biology: a gestational surrogate—a person carrying an embryo created from a donor egg and sperm and in no way related to the carrier—can become pregnant after the donor embryo is implanted. They end up giving birth to two babies who seem to be twins but are completely unrelated to each other.

“I was immediately on Google” after coming across an article describing the phenomenon, Friedland, a former lawyer, says. “There’s something like 12 documented cases ever in the world, but it’s not impossible.” The author, who lives outside New York City, was intrigued by the idea and its ramifications for all the parents involved. “It got me thinking about the legal implications,” she explains, and that article quickly became the germ of her third novel, He Gets That From Me.

The book tells the stories of Maggie Wingate, who becomes a gestational carrier in order to afford college, which is impossible on her retail cashier’s salary, and Donovan Gallo-Rigsdale and Chip Rigsdale, the Manhattan couple whose embryos Maggie carries. When a home DNA test reveals that Kai, one of the Rigsdale twins, has no genetic connection to anyone else in the family, they learn that Maggie had a rare double pregnancy; tween Kai is the biological child of Maggie and her husband, Nick. When Maggie and Nick sue for custody, the book becomes an exploration of what it means to be related and how people construct their own families. “It is hard to imagine a better novel for a book club discussion,” Kirkus Reviews states, calling the book “a thoughtful and gripping family tale that will haunt readers long after finishing it.”

Friedland found the book easy to write. “I sat down and it just flew out of me,” she describes. In some ways she identifies closely with her protagonists: as the parent of four children (“a large portion of my life is making sure that no one is lost and everyone is fed”), she found it easy to identify with the emotions and viewpoints of protagonists Maggie and Donovan. “It’s a book about parents and parenting from different perspectives,” she says, and how biology is and isn’t a part of what connects a parent and a child:

Having done all I can at the moment, I have to return to the craft barn, where I will calmly teach children how to do a Chinese staircase pattern with their lanyards as I try not to imagine what on earth Dr. Pillar could have meant. What I understood her to be saying is so far and away beyond the realm of human possibility that I know it’s best not to dwell on it until I can have a real conversation with the doctor. For now, I will simply pray that I misunderstood. The alternative—that the second Rigsdale baby, Kai, is actually my own biological child—is simply unthinkable. I look down at the blank screen of my cell phone and try not to see the gaping hole, the abyss that I could fall into, if it turns out I was carrying my own baby all those years ago and then accidentally gave him away.

Writing chapters from Donovan’s perspective also gave Friedland the chance to challenge herself to write about an experience different from her own. “A few people have asked me, ‘Why did you think you could write this Christian gay man?’ ” she says. Friedland, like Maggie, is Jewish, and she explains that she developed the character after both substantial research and in-depth discussions. “I talked to a lot of dads,” she says. “It’s important for writers to be able to write about all different types of characters.”

Friedland was also able to draw on her experience as a lawyer, the first step in her career path. “I never wanted to be a lawyer even before I went to law school,” she admits, but the research into case law and precedent that shaped He Gets That From Me allowed her to return to the one part of practicing law she liked. “I enjoyed delving into this novel legal question,” she says.

In addition to a law degree, Friedland holds an MFA, which she credits with expanding her writing skills. “I was asked to write specific things that I would never have tried to do,” she says. The program’s focus on writing short stories, though, was not what she expected at the outset. “I thought that while I was in school, I would also be writing my novel on the side,” and despite the delay in accomplishing that goal, “I do think it helped being around like-minded people.”

When Friedland finished her first novel, Trouble the Water, she found resistance from the early agents she reached out to. “The most common response I got was, ‘I don’t know where to shelve this in a bookstore,’ ” she says. “Although the feedback was positive, it was also ‘This is never going to work.’ ” An acquaintance, also a SparkPress author, encouraged her to reach out to the publisher, and their response was far more enthusiastic. “They said that it was 27,000 words too long, but if I could get rid of those 27,000 words, they would publish it,” says Friedland, who immediately began editing her manuscript and brought out Trouble the Water in 2018.

He Gets That From Me is Friedland’s third SparkPress release, and she enjoys the indie publishing experience. “It’s been going well in a hybrid approach,” she says, a combination of partnerships with local bookstores, in-person events, and a strong online presence. And after publishing her second book, That’s Not a Thing, in April 2020, the early days of the pandemic, Friedland is in a position to appreciate everything coming together this time. “This has been a much better experience,” she says.

Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.