Rachel Newcomb‘s Frugal Find Under Nine:
Description of The Gift:
Is egg donation a gift or a transaction?
After several years together, Elise and Peter’s marriage is on the rocks. She can’t get pregnant, and he can’t seem to finish his dissertation. An editor with a promising publishing career, Elise decides to shelve her ambitions to pursue the baby that she believes will stabilize their shaky union. Meanwhile, Peter’s mind is elsewhere, haunted by memories of his glory days as a Peace Corps worker in Morocco.
Celia, the Princeton scholarship student who answers their advertisement for an egg donor, appears to be the solution to their problems. The daughter of an unemployed mill worker from South Carolina, Celia doesn’t quite fit into the elite Ivy League environment. But when Elise decides that Celia needs a mentor, the situation takes an unexpected turn.
“The Gift is a moving and beautifully rendered story about ambition, whether overt or oblique, thwarted or fulfilled. In precise and elegant prose,Rachel Newcomb explores the ethics of egg donation, campus politics, and marital conflict. A smart, complex book by a deeply empathetic writer.”
- Laila Lalami, author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
“Clear and relentless… this timely, stark, dead-on story nails two of our biggest contemporary dilemmas and brings into question the entire arrangement of marriage in a world wrenched by torrents of ambition amid doubts about the future that turn friends and even spouses into rungs on the ladder, or roadkill.”
- Philip F. Deaver, author of Silent Retreats and How Men Pray
The Gift currently has an Amazon reader review rating of 4.5 stars from 21 reviews. Read the reviews here.
An excerpt from The Gift:
At 6:30 Peter closed the book he was reading, a weighty book about sea exploration in the fifteenth century. Somehow it must relate to his dissertation, but as of yet he wasn’t sure how. He climbed the stairs to the main floor of the Firestone Library, which at this hour hummed with activity, the large reading room with its high ceilings and tall windows packed with industrious students hunched over chemistry notes and history books.
Heading to the exit, he passed one of his students from his Introductory Arabic class, a boy with a brush cut and a face dotted with acne who had expressed interest in someday using his Arabic to work for the CIA. Peter had to fight his dislike for Kevin, who saw the Middle East as a hostile, monolithic region and showed no interest in learning more about the beauty or diversity of its people.
“Hey Professor,” Kevin said. “I went looking for you after class but you weren’t in your office hours. Could we talk for a second?”
“I was in my office hours,” Peter sighed. “I must have just been in the bathroom. Actually, I’m running late for dinner, can this wait?” He tried to keep moving, but Kevin matched his stride.
“I wanted to talk about the grade you gave me on my last paper.”
Peter stopped in the lobby.
“The paper that was supposed to be about culture?” he asked. “You mean the one where you wrote that Israel is the only civilized country in the region?”
“Yes, you gave me a D. I thought that seemed a little undeserved.”
“You didn’t respond to the question correctly.”
“You mean I didn’t answer in a way that pandered to your political views.”
“No, you didn’t do what the assignment asked. I asked you to write about some aspect of Middle Eastern culture, not a polemic. I didn’t ask you to make value judgments. No culture is more or less civilized than any other.”
“Depends on your definition of culture. I was defining culture as the elevation of civilization, which Israel has reached. They’ve got world-class orchestras to prove it. Not like their barbaric neighbors.”
“Barbaric?” Peter said. “You can’t use words like that.”
“I can’t call suicide bombings barbaric?” Kevin argued. “Honor killings? Last time I checked, both practices were popular in that neighborhood, except for Israel.”
“How about targeted assassinations?” Peter said, wanting to bite his tongue but finding himself unable to do so. He tried to keep his voice low, but the security guard was listening with interest. “How about torture in the prisons?”
“Terrorists don’t play by the rules, so why should we have to when we’re dealing with them? These are exceptional times.”
“Hitler claimed that, too.” Peter knew he was on dangerous territory.
“Well, it seems obvious to me that I got a D because you didn’t like my subject, not because of the grammar, which was acceptable. I had Dr. Thomas look it over and he had no problems with it. He said he would have given it an A.”
“Dr. Thomas is neither your professor nor your teaching assistant,” he responded. “And whether you’re writing in Arabic and English, the subject matter is just as important as the grammar and style. You did not write about culture. You wrote a political polemic. Had you written about Israeli wedding ceremonies or Bedouin goat herding practices, you would have been on safer ground. Just remember the parameters of the assignment next time.”
“I certainly will, Doctor… or wait, you’re not a doctor yet, are you.” He smirked. “I’ll definitely keep this in mind.” Kevin looked at him pointedly then turned to go back into the library.
Peter stepped out into the chilly September air. He had no interest in bringing politics into the classroom and only wished that he could teach without feeling that students cared only about their grades. If only they were there to learn Arabic because of their love for the language’s unconventional beauty, and for the region’s rich and compelling history! He was used to students complaining about their grades—this was Princeton, after all, and the students were competitive—but Kevin made him nervous. The professor he was assisting as a teaching assistant, a Lebanese expert on 19th century Levantine social history, would back him up here. He would have to tell her about all of this before Kevin went to her, if he hadn’t already.
His discussion with Kevin made him late for dinner. Elise wouldn’t care, but Peter preferred order, and for his own sanity he liked to parcel the day out into planned tasks, just to make sure they were completed. The run at six thirty each day, shower and breakfast, and on campus no later thaneight thirty, ensconced in his carrel. Teaching from eleven to twelve on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, followed by a lunch, sometimes brought from home or else in the student union. Back in the library from one until three, a coffee break at the hour when he was most likely to get drowsy, then more work again until at least six o’clock. Office hours on Wednesdays from three to five.
The dissertation would only be completed if he were meticulous about his ordering of time. Inspiration without discipline was nothing. At night he could be more spontaneous, going out for the occasional dinner and a movie, or, if Elise were out of town, a beer at the grad student bar. Arranging his life this way offered just enough comfort to prevent him from other excesses that might afflict him if he dropped his insistence on routine. Sometimes even the slightest deviation from the schedule led to chaos, and when this happened he might find himself needing to spend a good hour arranging his books, first by descending order of size, then alphabetically, then by publication date. Without the routine, other troubling behaviors threatened to appear, operating beyond his volition.
Unlocking the door to their apartment, he breathed in the smell of seafood. Seated at the functional wooden IKEA table drinking wine with Elise was a girl he didn’t recognize. He wondered if Elise had started working at the rape crisis center again. When she did, it was not uncommon for him to come home to find unfamiliar faces around the dinner table, fellow activists, or girls whom Elise was helping to get through difficult times. He suspected she had boundary issues, so he’d been relieved that she was not volunteering as much lately.
“Peter, this is Celia,” Elise said. She stood up to shake his hand. For a minute her name did not register, and Peter tried to recall where Elise might have met her. A friend from yoga class, maybe? Suddenly he remembered where Elise had been yesterday, and why he had avoided coming home until the last possible instant, when she was already asleep.
“This is…” he stalled, reaching out his hand to shake Celia’s as she stood up to meet him, her face slightly flushed, whether from the wine or the awkwardness of the meeting, he wasn’t sure. She seemed so young; she could have been one of his students, one of the masses of slender, elfin girls who populated the Princeton campus, with perfect, television-commercial hair and shiny white teeth. She wore the requisite long hair over her shoulders, jeans, and a t-shirt from a bar that claimed to be in Key West but was probably the creation of a marketer at Old Navy. She looked at him expectantly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know I’d be meeting you this soon,” he said. “Elise didn’t mention…”
“She caught me just as I was about to leave for dinner,” Celia said. “Risotto sounded a lot better than the usual fare they serve in the cafeteria.”
“What are they serving in the cafeterias these days?” Elise said. “When I was in college, I avoided the cafeteria assiduously. But then, I avoided food in all its guises, institutional or otherwise.”
After a few drinks, Elise became expansive, her personality a little more outsized. He knew she was planting the comments about food on purpose. Ask me about my eating disorder. But Celia was diplomatic, not falling for the bait.
“I bet the food is the same from when you were in college; they’ve just updated the names. Like calling something penne arrabiata changes the fact that it’s really just spaghetti and tomato sauce with a dash of Tabasco.”
Peter smiled and sat down at the table.
“Wine?” Elise lifted the bottle in his direction, already half finished.
“Just a bit,” he said. “What kind of cheese is that?”
“Your favorite—St. André triple cream.”
“How decadent. What’s the occasion?” he asked. Elise angled her head in Celia’s direction.
“Celia’s agreed to help us out,” she said, placing her hand over his. “She’s going to help us have a baby.”
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