It’s hard to express my feelings about Antonia Hayes’s first novel, Relativity. When I say it’s sort of a feel-good novel about the ramifications of shaken baby syndrome, you’re going to get the wrong idea. So, maybe I should just start at the beginning. I read recently that Hayes’s own son was a victim, and that adds an unexpected dimension to the novel.
The novel begins from the viewpoint of a delightful character, Ethan Forsythe, the 12-year-old ex-baby in question. He is thrilled about astronomy and physics, and we meet him with his mother, Claire, watching the stars from the park. Ethan is a science nerd who is having some problems at school from bullying, and he also wonders about his father, whom his mother refuses to talk about. Finally, some particularly nasty comments about his father by his ex-best friend Will at school lead him to hit Will, an incident that he can’t remember. In the resulting conference with parents and his teacher, Will’s mother makes some cruel comments and Ethan is so upset that he has a seizure.
Claire, who is a distracted, hazy, self-involved person and overly protective parent, has been having her own problems. Her ex-husband Mark has written her a letter telling her his father is dying and wants to see Ethan. Claire has not allowed Mark’s family any contact with Ethan since Mark left. Claire decides it is not in Ethan’s best interest to meet Mark’s father John, so John dies without seeing Ethan. We know that Ethan had developmental problems as a baby, but it is a while (but still in the first third of the book) before we find out that his father was found guilty of shaking him and injuring him. For that, he served time in prison.
One of the questions of the novel is whether Mark did it or not. However, this novel deals with more issues than that. Mark insists he did not, and we don’t learn the truth about it until the latter part of the novel. It also deals with how both parents handle self-blame over the injuries to Ethan and the disintegration of their marriage. Another theme is Ethan’s own need for knowledge of his father.
This was quite an enjoyable read for me, although I had some problems with the last part of the book. It is hopeful and gentle without providing a magic ending that solves everyone’s problems. That sounds good, right? But something about it bothered me in this context. The novel is compassionate and understanding, maybe too much so.
But the characters are convincing. Ethan is charming, especially in his friendship with his hospital friend Alison and in his love of and excitement for physics. Claire has reason for her over-protectiveness, although she is also very self-obsessed. Mark gradually pulls out of his own self-involvement over his ruined future to consider his son. Overall, I have to decide in favor of this novel, especially as Hayes undoubtedly knows her subject.