Jennifer Gilmore’s young adult tale of adoption and the complex difficulties it wreaks upon generations of a family, If Only, is careful to ground itself in the stories of its characters – the imperfect teenagers who haunt its narrative.
In 2000, Bridget, a young pregnant teen, will be putting up her child for adoption as soon as it’s born in spite of her misgivings on the subject. Having lost her boyfriend, Baylor, to another girl, she sees no other option – and she’s only sixteen and even though her religious mother supports her carrying to term, Bridget has to way to take care of a baby. She and her best friend, Dahlia, are the daughters of another pair of best friends, and though they are still best friends, Lulu and Bridget’s mothesr have coped with the scarring of their husbands in the Vietnam War differently – Lulu by becoming more wild, Bridget’s mom by finding religion. Bridget must use her own judgment, and with Dahlia’s help, tries to brace for the future and pick the best possible set of adoptive parents for her daughter. But Bridget’s very religious mother fights the adoption, and Bridget must fight against her to do what is best.
In 2017 that child, Ivy, is being raised in a happy and bucolic setting by her mothers in a bi-faith setting; now sixteen herself, she’s curious about the birth mother who named her and then faded out of her adoptive mothers’ lives. With only a few artifacts left her, including a series of heartwarming letters, she vows to find Bridget before she turns seventeen. Accompanied by her uber-talented best friend Claire, and her jockish yet soulfully poetic other best friend, Patrick, on whom she has something of a crush, Ivy heads to various places that were meaningful to Bridget, ultimately chasing all over New York. But will Bridget be receptive to seeing Ivy after all these years?
If Only is an emotional tale about identity, first love, parenthood, teen pregnancy, prejudice and identity. The writing is smooth, lovely, and feels quite true to the heart of a sixteen year old.
Ivy is a fine heroine; we spend most of our time with her, and she feels like a real, flawed, imperfect teenager. Bridget too, feels realistic; their best friends, their mothers – all of them feel like real, awkward, full-blooded human beings. Ivy ultimately ends up growing up during her journey, and this coming-of-age tale is mostly about that – and explores all of the foibles that come along with it. Bridget’s side of the story is more sorrowful, and her fate is gladdening and saddening at the same time.
But there is one real problem with the book that prevents it reaching its full potential – the author’s choice to use ‘if only’ chapters that slide between Ivy and Bridget’s story. There’s no one rule to what those ‘if only’ chapters could be – scenes from Ivy’s life, had she been given to another parent, a scene featuring one of their ancestors, or their mothers making the choices. Some of these follow a linear timeline; others follow along an alternate path. To the reader these are rather confusing and seem to come out of nowhere, as well-written as they are.
If Only is a beautiful story, but it’s chronological issues make it hard to recommend.