It's Complicated

by Philip K. Jason

NAPLES AUTHOR KRISTY KIERNAN has crafted a graceful, richly rewarding story of family relationships. Between Friends, Kiernan’s third novel, explores the meaning of friendship and family through the lens of crises involving contemporary medical technology and ethics: in-vitro fertilization, polycystic kidney disease, and organ transplant. The author builds rounded, distinctive characters who struggle with difficult personal decisions, and with controlled, orchestrated passion, she educates readers mentally and emotionally.
Naples music store owner Ali Gutierrez and her policeman husband Ben had not been able to produce children. Finally, with the donated ova of their friend Cora, they have Letty, who is turning fifteen as the novel opens. Ali now decides, after years of delay, that she needs to have another child. She would prefer a full genetic sibling for Letty, a repeat of the same in-vitro fertilization process. Will Cora allow use of the frozen embryos? Can and will she donate eggs again if necessary? Ben is extremely resistant to the idea of a second child. His resistance and other factors threaten the marriage.

Cora, a free spirit who travels the world advocating wind energy technology, returns to her Naples home to catch up with her ‘family’ and to resolve a serious medical issue: incurable polycystic kidney disease (PKD). Deciding what and when to tell her dear friends is as much a problem as committing to the necessary dialysis and to the replacement kidney search. Reuniting with Letty triggers questions about Cora’s proper relationship to the young woman who carries her genes.

Everyone is battling through major changes. The fortyish protagonists are feeling their mortality. Ben, without telling Ali, has transferred from a desk job back to a uniformed beat assignment. He needs to be helping people directly rather than pushing paper. Young Letty has become sexually active, impossibly rebellious, and involved with Seth, seemingly a drug-dealing low-life with nothing to recommend him but his outsider allure. Is she in danger? Which parent’s guidance will be most effective?

Kiernan weaves the narrative back and forth, distributing its strands among the three female characters. For scenes centered on Ali or Cora, she employs first person narration; for Letty, she chooses the third person limited omniscient point of view. These technical decisions serve the author well and provide readers with a clear understanding of what these women share and how they maintain and even defend the borders of their identities.

The Cora sections are brilliant: Cora’s voice defines her. Kiernan captures Cora’s aspiration of freely soaring not only in her occupation and her avocation as an airplane pilot, but also in the poetic flight of her sentences as they shape and release her unique perceptions. Ali is more of a planner and organizer, and her struggle to maintain some semblance of control over a world fallen into disarray is captured well by the voice Kiernan invents for her.

Letty’s confused, needy teen voice is heard in the dialogue of the story, but by distancing her somewhat through the third person approach, Kiernan evokes the tentativeness of Letty’s evolving personality.
Suspense builds over the fragile state of Ali and Ben’s marriage, Letty’s dangerous behavior, Ali’s expectations regarding another in-vitro success, and Cora’s health. Since PKD is inherited, there is a concern that Letty may succumb to it in early middle age. Additionally, the frozen embryos might be carriers of the disease. And where, when needed, is Cora’s replacement kidney coming from? The family members, so thankful to Cora for Letty’s existence, would like to be donors, but not if Letty is going to need a kidney transplant from one of them down the road. How will Ben’s determination to help Seth turn out? These questions push against one another to an unexpected, if not inevitable, resolution.

Between Friends, to be released on April 6, is not the first Kiernan novel to address medical issues. Her well-received Matters of Faith concerns a child who suffers from food allergies. Ms. Kiernan became interested in the topic when she learned that a Canadian teenager had died after kissing her boyfriend, who had just eaten peanut butter. The incident started Kiernan thinking about the child’s parents. How do you raise a child with a condition that is so very sensitive? How do you let the child walk out the door every day?

Kiernan started educating herself about food allergies, never expecting to use the information in a novel. Years later, when she found herself pondering the issue of parents who refuse themselves and their children medical treatment on the basis of faith, the food allergy problem popped back into consciousness. It became more and more important to Kiernan, who eventually blended the faith issue with the information about food allergies to create Matters of Faith. Not only has the novel helped raise awareness about the deadly seriousness of food allergies, but so has the website www.kristykiernan.com, which provides a good number of links to resources on the subject.

The interest in in-vitro fertilization preceded Between Friends by 10-15 years. While on a trip to Gainesville to visit a friend, Kiernan noticed ads inside public restrooms offering money to women who would sell their eggs. She wondered if the young University of Florida women who made money this way had considered the long-range consequences of their decisions.

As with the food allergy interest, the author had no idea that a novel would draw upon the facts she began storing away. Years later, a conversation with a friend about kidney donation led Kiernan to explore how that process worked. More time passed, and she began to wonder how the two issues might complicate one another. What if the egg donor had a disease that could be transmitted to her genetic child? Kiernan’s ‘what if’ led her to discover PKD – and then she had the building blocks for Between Friends.

Kristy Kiernan’s curiosity and her fascination with real-life problems lead to research and contemplation eventually supercharged by imagination and craft. Her gripping, enlightening novels result.

Meet Kristy Kiernan at the Naples Authors & Books Festival on April 10, where she will be a Writers’ Conference panelist at the Naples Center of FGCU. She will also be signing books throughout the day. Call 287-8921 for more information. •

from the March-April 2010 issue

Kristy Kiernan