In The Baby Merchant, Kit Reed touches on a subject that can move people to great lengths – the difficulty, emotional strife, and lengths at which people will go to acquire children, or get rid of their unwanted children. The protagonist, Tom Starbird, brokers “product” deals for wanting, potential “clients.” In Reed’s imagined future, the product is a child and the client is a set of parents who are either unable to bear children, or who have had no luck adopting.
Tom has a very select clientele; only the richest and most powerful. Of the rich and powerful, Tom only selects the potential parents after the close scrutiny of in-depth interviews and observation. Although Tom’s trade is selling lives, he does have certain morals; Tom wants to ensure these newborns or ‘products,’ will be placed with the proper ‘customers,’ or parents. Tom’s smooth operation grinds to a halt when the powerful newsman Jake Zorn contacts Tom, looking to acquire a child for him and his wife. Tom is thrown off because Jake came to him, all of Tom’s previous clients were referred to him – in other words Tom is a very difficult man to find by yourself. A reluctant soon-to-be mother, Sasha, may be the solution to Tom and Jake’s mutual problem.
Ms. Reed puts her characters through the proverbial ringer throughout the story, they all experience periods of doubt, heartache, and frustration. What makes the plight of these characters so powerful was just how plausible a premise Reed put forth. Her imagined future is not too dissimilar from the world in which we live. With people making multiple, unsuccessful visits to fertility clinics, adopting children from outside their own country, contrasted with many reluctant and undeserving parents, this story could easily take place in the very near future.
There were also a lot of shifts in narrative voice throughout the story. With a prologue in the second-person narrative, Reed shifts the voice slightly for each chapter, sometimes to first-person, others to third-person. While, on the surface, this may sound somewhat disjointed, she made it work for the story she told, and it managed to convey the emotion of each character nicely. It was a neat trick and set the tone very well for each chapter, and the overall novel.
One of the strengths of this novel is the depth at which these characters feel and are driven. Aside from some strong doses of egotism, the characters are acting out of well-intentioned motivations. While Tom’s line of business is, essentially, stealing children, he genuinely believes he is acting out of altruistic motives. Jake Zorn, for all the bravado he exhibits, wants to make his wife happy, and Sasha wants her child to be distanced from the life she knew.
Personally speaking, I know a number of people who have had as much, or more difficult having a child as Tom’s clients, so perhaps this story hit a bit closer, and was more resonant for me. Of course, the writing and storytelling ability of the author have to follow suit and deliver on the promise of the premise. In the case of The Baby Merchant, Kit Reed has succeeded very admirably.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford