by Ashley Nelson Levy
Ashley Nelson Levy’s debut novel begins: “Last night I told you it might be hard for us today.” The narrator is addressing his younger brother, Danny, on his wedding day. She gets irritated with the usual family obligations: composing a toast, helping roll out the cake. the tone is brittle; The annoyance seems small. Soon, “Instant Family” opens to reveal years of sibling grievances informing these frosty opening scenes, though a central tension of the story is how much of Danny’s is to blame and how much of his circumstances.
Danny was adopted from an orphanage in Thailand, where he slept in a room with 50 children. When he joins the Larsen family at the age of 3, he knows neither English nor little Thai. He is malnourished. A toy truck confuses him. Soon, tantrums begin: “The sound of your pain had an incredible range,” the narrator recalls. “It always seemed to be rearranging itself, finding infinite ways to annoy you and us.” By junior high, Danny is targeted by threats and falls into a fistfight. He is labeled “angry”. Who wouldn’t be in his shoes?
During “Instant Family”, the narrator examines her identity as a boy with an older sister who confuses her, but at the same time as the mother she wants to be. She has spent months undergoing fertility treatments at the time of the marriage, and her desire to reproduce – her willingness to subject herself to endless tests, drugs, and interventions to create a child genetically related to her – is both a mirror and a counterpoint. Parents’ pain for her, the years-long quest to adopt Danny.
Given the narrator’s medical and family hardships, the book’s general humor of anger is appropriate. But the most memorable pieces in “Instant Family” are the funny parts. These are also the moments when Danny is the most three-dimensional: when he misses his chance to walk to his college graduation and instead hosts a backyard ceremony, with the local newspaper diploma in place. Or when he hits the family car and stops at McDonald’s to take his dad a Happy Meal. When the old excitement of the book gives way to affection and gaiety, it is as if someone has opened all the windows.
“Instant Family” bills itself as a novel, but it’s hard to keep it that way. Although it is addressed to Danny, it is not a fictional novel, nor does it contain formal conceit or plot. It doesn’t change the approach or do much to complicate the narrator’s account of the events. There is no world-building in the space-time continuum, no tears. It reads like a long personal essay, with a few commentaries on the genre, such as semi-digestible chunks of research that occasionally jump up: a few dutiful paragraphs on the history of transracial adoption, a list of Victorian novels that included the founding Feature Kids, an extract from a PDF by Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Children who grow up in severely emotionally deprived settings are often prone to defiance and isolation. It is extremely difficult to reverse the conditioning of initial neglect, which can result in impulsive, inattentive behavior. At the end of “Instant Family”, Danny begins stealing his parents’ credit card information to make odd purchases. He raises money for a one-year Christian mission trip, leaves after three weeks and uses his donors’ money for a down payment on an apartment. For her sister, a painful choice presents itself. She can accept her brother for who he is, which is a form of giving up. Or she can continue to hope that will change, which virtually guarantees her ongoing frustration and resentment—these are the emotions that dominate this book. But as anyone who has ever had a family can attest, they are often unbroken by love.