Laurie Frankel's novel "The Atlas of Love" imagines what happens when three graduate students team up to raise a baby. The University of Puget Sound literature and writing professor reads from her book Saturday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

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The premise is promising: What happens when Jill, a young graduate student whose idea of domesticity is opening a box of Saltines for dinner, discovers she is unexpectedly pregnant? When her spooked boyfriend runs off, when she rules out abortion and adoption, and when she knows she can’t possibly parent her baby without help?

She gets help — in the guise of two kindhearted grad-school friends (Janey and Katie) who move in with Jill to co-parent the impending baby. All three have complicated, full schedules packed with studying and teaching. They pool their resources, their furniture and their free time.

What follows their magnanimous decision to become three-way moms is endearingly told through the eyes of Janey, a Shakespearean specialist and self-described “un-

reliable narrator” who offers to become the household’s cook. Janey and Katie, a Mormon studying Victorian literature, fall in love just as fondly with the new baby as does the feckless Jill, and they remake their schedules and their lives to cover all the responsibilities of child care and housekeeping.

In “The Atlas of Love,” (St. Martin’s Press, 336 pp., $23.99), author Laurie Frankel displays a great ear for dialogue and a witty turn of phrase in quick characterizations (“Jill and her mother were very close but in that way where they sometimes wanted to kill each other”). She makes the lovely optimism shared by the three young women compellingly real, as they set up joint housekeeping, buy baby clothes and acquire a female dog named Uncle Claude. Janey in particular throws her whole heart into the newly created family, even though she knows there’s a “question whether this baby would be family or friend and which, really, were Jill and Katie.”

Like troikas and three-legged stools, however, this three-way agreement gradually proves an uneasy balance. Little cracks start to appear: Janey rushes home after class to watch Atlas while Jill is to attend a crucial grad seminar, only to find Jill in full lotus position on the floor with the baby, calmly announcing that she has dropped the class. (“We are chilling out,” she tells the frantic Janey. “You are harshing on our mellow.”) Gradually, the novel takes a more serious turn, with personal crises of several kinds, and some plot developments that make you wonder how Janey and Katie can truly regard Jill as a friend.

There’s also some promising romance, a hilariously speedy wedding, much laughter and some serious tears among this cast of characters. Frankel, who teaches literature, writing and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound, also weaves into the narrative some of the often-harsh realities of grad-student life and college teaching. Not all these literary references are deadly serious, either: at one point, Frankel even has Janey take on one of the sacred cows of the American literary canon: “Moby-Dick is long. And whaling is boring.” This novel may not be “Moby-Dick,” but it certainly isn’t boring.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to The Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING-FM (www.king.org).