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Cord Blood as a plot element in the novel, The Laws of Gravity

Prosinec 2013
Liz Rosenberg
Liz Rosenberg

Liz Rosenberg, novelist

I did not set out to write a novel about cord blood. I stumbled upon the idea in an unlikely place - a book club, where I'd been invited to speak about my first novel, HOME REPAIR. I mentioned that I'd been thinking about my second novel, a much darker novel than the first one, more complicated. In fact, I told the group, I'd been thinking about it for 30 years. But I was stuck on a plot point.

Thirty years earlier, I'd read a newspaper account about two cousins who went to court over a bone marrow transplant. The first cousin had leukemia. The second cousin initially agreed to donate the bone marrow - then he got scared off and changed his mind. The case ended up in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. I read about it in the newspaper only after the sick cousin had died.

That story stayed with me. What, I wondered, happened between the widow of the first cousin and that second cousin? How did the rest of the family line up? What would happen at family reunions? The story line raised issues of medical ethics; of the bonds of family; of morality vs. law.

But while I was just starting to think about these issues, Jodi Picoult wrote a novel called MY SISTER'S KEEPER. Well, I thought, that was the end of that. Her novel also involved medical ethics, family loyalties, court cases. But the idea for what became THE LAWS OF GRAVITY kept nagging at me. And that day, when I met with the book club group, I spoke about my dilemma.

"Why don't you write about cord blood?" my hostess suggested. She began talking about how one of her own relatives had banked cord blood for her children. We talked about issues of public access to medical miracles. We wondered if cord blood should be banked for every child, regardless of income. We talked about what it might feel like to be asked to give that cord blood to someone else.

A novelist is always looking for ways to put more pressure on their characters. Novels, basically, are about what we human beings do under pressure. I changed several things from the original story I'd heard - I created one female cousin and one male, and gave the male cousin - the one holding the cord blood more money, and a slight but lifelong crush on the female cousin. Then I had that male cousin, - a nervous, over-protective fellow to begin with reason to worry about the health of his own children, the ones for whom he'd banked the cord blood. The struggle was no longer about one cousin afraid to get a medical procedure  it became a novel about having to make hard choices, about the hierarchy of family loyalties. On one hand, a dying woman. On the other, a man who just wants to protect his own children as well as to help the cousin he's always loved.

The result was THE LAWS OF GRAVITY, which was published this year by Amazon Publishing. It has had more recognition and success than I would have dreamed possible it's been a best-seller in the United States, the U.K., and Canada. Looking back at it now, there are things I would change. (Every novelist casts a critical eye on her literary children.) I wish, for instance, that I'd written more about the issue of access to medical marvels. I only touch on that in one scene of the novel, where the wealthy cousin chastises the sick one for not having banked the cord blood of her own child. I had to fudge some technical details about cord blood to make my plot work a more forgivable flaw. But THE LAWS OF GRAVITY is still very dear to my heart. It sounds silly to say so, but I can't read it myself without starting to worry all over again about my characters what will they do, what decisions will they make; how will they treat one another; what will the judge do when the case comes to his court.

It's not really a novel about cord blood, of course - it's a novel about family and obligation, about responsibility and ethics and love and friendship and loyalty. The idea of banking cord blood plays a small part in THE LAWS OF GRAVITY. Small, but very significant. And I owe it all to reading newspapers, and going to book club meetings.

Liz Rosenberg is the author of two adult novels, THE LAWS OF GRAVITY and HOME REPAIR. She has also published many other prize-winning works of poetry, children's books, and non-fiction. She is currently at work on her third novel, due out in 2015. She lives and works in upstate NY.