A poignant, dazzling debut novel about a woman who longs to be a mother and the captivating yet troubled child she and her husband take in.
Nearly half a million children are in foster care. Most placements fail. Will seven-year-old Maresa's?
"It starts with a face in a binder. CHILDREN AVAILABLE, reads the cover." So begins Rachel Howard's intimate and heartbreaking novel about a couple hoping to adopt a child from foster care, then struggling to make it as a family. Seven-year-old Maresa arrives with an indomitable spirit, a history of five failed foster care "placements," and a susceptibility to angry panic attacks fueled by memories of abuse. Maresa's new foster mother, whose name the reader never learns, brings good intentions but also her own history of trauma, while her husband's heart condition threatens to explode. These three flawed but deeply human characters want more than anything to love each other--but how does a person get to unconditional love? Over the course of a year, as Maresa approaches the age at which children become nearly impossible to place, all three must discover if they can move from being three separate people to a true family—or whether, almost unthinkably, the adoption will fail.
Written in a spare and thought-provoking style evoking aspects of Jenny Offill and Rachel Cusk, The Risk of Us deftly explores the inevitable tests children bring to a marriage, the uncertainties of family life, and the ways true empathy obliterates our defenses.
It starts with a face in a binder. CHILDREN AVAILABLE, reads the cover. The recruitment brochure for this foster services agency says they need families that “take risks,” but I won’t notice this language until it’s too late, and even if I’d noticed it at the start, I would have taken it as a pat on the back. You, though, you see everything as a warning. You scrutinize the flyers in the binder, search the faces for signs. Read between the lines.
“He looks sweet,” I say. “A boy like that, I think we could help him.”
“Sexual abuse,” you say. “How would he ever trust me?” Turn the page.
The pictures remind me of the advertisements for abandoned dogs in the shelter where I volunteered, back in another life.
Older than seven we’ve deemed untenable, which means every teenager’s smile punctures any temptation to feel virtuous. “It’s so unfair, the older ones don’t have a chance,” I say.
“It’s awful,” you say. You mean it. You’ve turned pale. Your bleeding heart, literally and figuratively. It weakens you several times daily. The reason I married you.
“We want the child to have a chance of bonding with us,” you say. It’s an apology, not an explanation. We’ve been over this too many times. You made a chart: Name. DOB. County. Positives. Concerns. You stop on an Asian girl with big glasses. I read: Alice would like to be placed with a family that eats organic produce.
“I like that. She looks smart, that Alice.” You’re trying out her name. But Alice is nine. So we turn.
To a brown-haired gremlin with arms flung like she could fly off the page.
“Ma-REE-sa?” we say. “Ma-RESS-a?”
The girl beside her has the same brown eyes and brown hair. But she’s composed. Forgettable. Or is that just the year and a half since we saw her photo, as I write this, erasing incipient love?
Jennifer and Maresa are adorable eight- and six-year-old sisters. They love dance class, singing, and making art.
Your mouth puckering in thought. “The agency said we can have two of the same sex in one room.” My pulse rising at what you don’t say: The older girl is eight.
Names and dates of birth at the top of the list, slip of paper handed to the receptionist.
In your handwriting, a special note: Highly interested.
You may be the careful one, but you’ve got your risky side. Saying “I love you” back when I blurted it after three weeks. Following me from San Francisco to North Carolina after three months. Marrying me there after six. Supporting me when I wanted to quit the only college teaching job I’d ever managed to land and go back to California. Signing a mortgage on a house in the foothills, praying our freelance gigs would keep coming even though we’d be hours up Route 80 from the bay, because how else could we ever afford that second bedroom?
The difference with you: You know the risks are real. Whereas I can’t quite conjure danger. Blithe, some might say.
You prefer to say I have an optimistic imagination.
Failure of imagination might apply, too. Not long after we write the unpronounceable name, I go for a beer with another writer, rare creature in our new GMC-driving, flag-flying town. You commended me for networking, but what I want in this alien land of live oaks and ponderosa pines is a friend. His perfect baby is home sleeping with his wife. I talk the whole time about the girls in the binder, about waiting to hear. Try not to burden him with details of a labyrinthine bureaucracy, just say we’ve been specially chosen as a home offering “permanency,” though finalizing can’t be guaranteed. He applauds what we’re doing. Says it sounds risky.
“Maybe this isn’t the kind of question I should ask,” he starts, “but what happens if ?— ?you know ?— ?you don’t click?”
I explain how the first meetings will go, how the girls supposedly won’t know ?— ?though how could they not? ?— ?that we’re scouting.
“I mean beyond that,” he says, and I brace myself with another sip of beer. “Not to be callous here, but technically you’ll still be foster parents until the final adoption, right? So?.?.?.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well?.?.?. we’re supposed to be offering unconditional love.”
Meaning, I’m not even going to imagine what you’re suggesting.
The week after we hand the names to the receptionist, we drive down to the city. Oh, elaborate life riggings of the so-called creative class. You’ve kept your adjunct job near the bay, teaching art where we can’t afford to live, renting a basement two nights a week from a friend.
“With breathtaking brevity, Rachel Howard's debut novel, The Risk of Us, illuminates the joys, challenges, fears and frustrations of adopting a foster child. And while she delves into the minutiae of ‘the system’ and the differences of opinion about parenting styles, her deceptively thin volume is about much more than plunging into parenthood. Howard masterfully illuminates how parenthood manages to bend even the most solid of marriages and expose insecurities about past relationships, including those from childhood. . . . [Howard’s] writing is spare and elegant, yet it beautifully conveys intensity and emotional depth. . . . A simply gorgeous novel.”—Associated Press
“It’s a triumph of a book that captures an essential truth not just about how it feels to foster an already formed human being, but about the fragile, shape-shifting quality of any family. Raising a child is always a leap of faith, motivated by love, which is something this narrator has stores of.”—The San Francisco Chronicle
"Powerful . . . Howard’s portrayal of motherhood in The Risk of Us is the antidote to the Instagram hashtag filled with photos of glowing stay-at-home moms posed with their immaculate children and spotless kitchens.…Utterly compelling."—Bustle
"Poignant" —San Francisco Examiner
"Though rooted in memoir, this is compelling fiction, trenchant, heartbreaking, ultimately hopeful."—Booklist
“An emotionally complex and amazingly suspenseful novel about love and fear."—Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation
“A tight, compelling story.” —Santa Barbara Independent
"Rachel Howard has given us a portrait of family-building and attachment that is at once beautiful and painful, serious and funny, page-turning and insightful. I was deeply moved by this novel, a powerful reminder of the risks we take on whenever we love anyone."
— Belle Boggs, author of The Art of Waiting
"I’ve never read anything so beautiful about the intricacies of adoption—the process itself, and the seldom-talked-about aftermath. The prose is elegant and compressed; I often had to stop reading to catch my breath. Anyone who has ever loved a child, in any capacity, should read this book."
— Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More and Fire Sermon
"The Risk of Us is a spare, poetic, and fearless narrative that explores the question of what makes—and keeps—a family together. Be prepared for an absorbing, unflinching chronicle of the formidable difficulties and vast rewards of love."
— Krys Lee, author of How I Became a North Korean and Drifting House
"Rachel Howard’s The Risk of Us (so accurately titled) is a novel of deep pain yet also laughs—lots of them. Nothing is easy in this book, and that’s as it should be. With risk comes a kind of awesome grace. A wonderfully written and candid examination of what it means to be a family."
— Peter Orner, author of Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge and Love and Shame and Love
"Howard works with an elegant complexity, rendering family life with its necessary cocktail of pain and humor and pathos. She's the kind of writer I admire most: an unflinching, savage, and ultimately tender eye trying to make sense of all our confusions."
— Joshua Mohr, author of Termite Parade
"This book reads like a thriller. A beautiful story about connection and love despite and beyond trauma.”
— Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land
"A study in the frustrations of the foster-care system and the shaky foundations beneath new families. "—Kirkus
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