A sad story about a dying child and an accused mother that too often veers into sentimentality.
Grace Connolly is described as a heroic mother. Her three-year-old, Jack, is terminally ill with mitochondrial disease, and she is his dedicated caretaker. But she’s far from the perfect wife to good guy Stephen. Grace has been having an affair with ornithologist Noah, her first love from 20 years ago. The fragile balance Grace has created, keeping Jack happy and alive and keeping Stephen from finding out about the joy she has with Noah, is shattered when she is accused of hurting Jack. Grace discovers there is an open file on her from Child Protection Services investigating the possibility that she has Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a rare psychological disorder causing parents (usually mothers) to make their children ill, even kill them, for sympathy and attention. Unfortunately, Grace fits the profile, such as it is: She is overly expert in medical terminology (though she’s an epidemiologist); she’s friendly with the hospital staff; she’s vigilant about seeking treatments for her son. These behaviors (and others) hardly seem conclusively harmful, which brings Fischer to her novel’s interesting proposal—that Munchausen is nothing less than a 21st-century witch-hunt. Grace has a friend who happens to be an expert on the Salem witch trials, and the two begin drawing links between these two phenomena, both of which demonize women. Grace is terrified that the state will take Jack into protective custody, and maybe even take her two older children away. Also a concern is that Stephen will find out about Noah—the report suspects her of adultery, another indicator of Munchausen deceitfulness. Although it is unclear as to how Grace is supposed to be making Jack sick (his disease is genetic, well-documented and indisputably terminal), the novel’s flaw lies less in the particulars than in the tone.
A dying child is the stuff of true tragedy, and indeed there is much crying, but the many discussions and deconstructions of grief somehow negate its impact.