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Book Review: Relative Strangers - Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception

12 May 2014
Appeared in BioNews 753

Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception

By Dr Petra Nordqvist and Professor Carol Smart

Published by Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN-10: 1137297662, ISBN-13: 978-1137297662

Buy this book from from Amazon UK

I don't often put my hand up to review books when they pop through the letterbox. Normally, after the pleasure of opening the parcel and inhaling the scent of fresh book, I quickly put it on someone else's desk.

This book however was different – it stayed on my desk and went into my bag. Perhaps it was because I had already heard Professor Carol Smart, one of the authors, give a presentation about some of the findings presented in the book. Perhaps it was because we (the Progress Educational Trust) are working with Professor Smart and Dr Petra Nordqvist on an event to discuss some of the key themes ('Do Genes Matter? Families and Donor Conception'). Perhaps it was because it's a slim volume.

I started reading on the train home and began to scribble notes on the covering letter from the publisher. On reaching page 60 I had to stop my jottings as I was writing down almost every page number with a comment such as 'good point, near top' and this wasn't too helpful. I even caught myself muttering approval out loud, which may not have endeared me to my fellow commuters.

The title - 'Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception' - describes the contents well. It centres on the concerns of donor-conceived children's parents and family, which can be summarised in this quote:

'The child many feared would be a kind of stranger rather than a (supposedly) predictable melange of known genes or characteristics and features'.

Having been involved with issues around donor conception for more than ten years I appreciated the concise yet elegant style. The authors contrasted the 'pall of failure' that many heterosexual couples experience when they realise that their best option is gamete donation with the 'wonderfully fortuitous' opportunity that typified the experience of lesbian couples.

I enjoyed the language and imagery the authors used; describing, for example, the impact of undergoing gamete donation on wider family as 'tiny tsunamis' in a small pond. Identity-release donors were described as an 'absent presence' as 'enigmatic' and 'both tantalising and yet unthinkable'.

The quotations which have been pulled out from the interviews of families conducted by Dr Norqvist ground the book in the reality of the day-to-day experience not just of the parents but of grandparents and other family members.

All parents and grandparents can easily become fixated by what young children will or won't eat and this grandmother of donor conceived twins was no exception:

'Sometimes you think, "Good Lord, what on earth is going on there? That's not Jill or Mike..." Well they both like olives, none of ours ate olives. These children like olives. And I am thinking, you know, is that something to do with a Spanish inheritance, a gene or something? I don't know. I am fine about that I think that's great'.

This book isn't a dry academic tome whose primary purpose is to be cited and referenced before fading into obscurity. On the contrary, it is accessible and can be read by anyone with an interest in donor conception. I would strongly recommend it to parents of donor-conceived children to whom it could be enormously reassuring - it can be extremely comforting to know that you are not the only one to have 'niggling worries'.

One of the book's great strengths is that it seems to champion difference while pulling together some common experiences, feelings and attitudes to donor conception. After all, as the authors say:

'How donor conception works depends very significantly on how existing networks of kinship are already working in a given family'.

My copy of the book may be rather dog-eared from train journey reads and from pulling it out of my bag at various meetings and urging people to read it, but it now has a permanent home on my desk.

The themes of 'Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception' will be discussed at the free public event 'Do Genes Matter?' in central London on the evening of Thursday 22 May. Book your place now by emailing

Buy Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception from Amazon UK.

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