THE SURROGATE – A Novel by Toni Halleen

Are You My Mother?

Cover of Book – Part of a house with a pregnant woman in the window.

The Plot:

In her debut novel, THE SURROGATE (Harper Books, 11/02/2021) author Toni Halleen tackles the emotionally charged issue of surrogacy.

Ruth Olson desperately wants a baby. At 42, she’s ready. Her 48-year-old husband of four years, Hal, wants to give her a child even though he already has two teenage boys from his first marriage. When she didn’t conceive, she tried alternative therapies, but none worked. Ruth must face the fact that she is of “geriatric maternal age.” Her doctor told her she had only a slim chance of the IVF working, and Ruth fears adoption “because you’re never sure what you’re getting, genetically.” The only option left is surrogacy.

Because Ruth’s doctor doesn’t believe her eggs are viable, they have to use the surrogate’s egg, with Hal’s sperm injected.

Cally Scott had responded to the Olson’s Craigslist ad for “an ambitious, brave young woman who was willing to donate her egg, as well as carry the child for us.” She is 20 years old and needs money for college. And doing something so monumental for someone else makes her feel important.

Ruth appreciates the fact that the girl wants a career. Cally seems like she will be the perfect surrogate.

Instead of using an agency or family law attorney, Hal prepares the surrogate agreement, even though he’s a real estate attorney and has minimal legal knowledge of surrogacy. He rationalizes that more money will go to Cally instead of to overhead. But when the three meet to sign the contract, Ruth feels like an onlooker, “a hapless client. Cally was an enchanted fertility goddess, and Hal was the hero who could make it all happen.”

Ruth is uncomfortable with the process. The fertility doctor calls them “Team Let’s Make a Baby.” But she knows that making a baby “was never supposed to be a team sport.”

Ruth feels left out, an outsider watching things happen from the sidelines. No physical part of her will take part: no kicking fetus in her womb, none of her DNA in the baby. But at least the baby will be Hal’s biological child.

After Cally gives birth, she has second thoughts about giving the baby to Ruth and Hal. She needs to go somewhere to think; she needs more time. Cally must surrender the baby the next day at the transfer ceremony, but she’s not ready.

With the help of her ex-boyfriend, Digger, Cally escapes from the hospital with her baby.

When Ruth and Hal realize Cally and the baby have disappeared, they track them to the frigid wilderness of northern Minnesota. As they close-in on finding them, questions of right and wrong plague both Cally and Ruth. Becoming a parent shouldn’t be this complicated.

The Vibe:

In this cat-and-mouse chase between two women who couldn’t be more different, the social issues of motherhood, privilege, and the ethics of surrogacy come to the forefront. Does biological motherhood take precedence over adoptive motherhood? Who is more deserving? Does it matter?

The Art of Storytelling:

Halleen writes the story in chapters alternating between the different characters, giving readers more depth of understanding for each point of view. The timeline also vacillates between the present, when Cally gives birth, and the past in 1997, when Ruth and Hal start their relationship.

As the tension in the story escalates with the search for the baby, it pulls readers into the challenging questions of morality, conscience, and the innate desire to raise a child. As the author notes in her discussion guide, there are many considerations for surrogacy: traditional (using the surrogate’s egg) versus gestational (using a donated egg), commercial (paid) versus altruistic, the varying state laws, and the post-birth contact issues.

We’re also challenged to consider the various ethical considerations of what surrogacy means and its effect on the surrogate, the adoptive parents, and the baby.

The Author:

Toni Halleen is a writer and lawyer who lives in Minneapolis.

What I Liked Best:

I especially enjoyed the chapters being written in different character viewpoints, especially those of the bio-mom, Cally, and the adoptive mom, Ruth.


Halleen not only wrote this thriller using the backdrop of a missing baby to increase suspense, but she provokes readers to consider their views regarding surrogacy, and what it means to be a parent. How far would you go to become a mother, or help another woman become one?

Read Neil Nyren’s interview with Toni Halleen on BookTrib.”