Claiming Noah


By Amanda Ortlepp

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This riveting debut novel of psychological suspense explores the dilemmas that arise when motherhood and science collide.

Catriona Sinclair has always had a well-developed sense of independence–in fact the one sore point in her otherwise happy marriage is her husband James’s desire to take care of her. As she’s often tried to explain to him, she took care of herself before she met him, and did a good job of it. But James has been especially attentive lately as they struggle to have a baby. They succeed at last through in vitro fertilization, but unwilling to risk the heartbreak of another miscarriage, they decide to make their “spare” frozen embryo available to another family.

Diana and Liam Simmons are desperate for a child. Unable to conceive, they are overjoyed to learn that as the closest genetic match to the Sinclairs they are the recipients of the embryo donation. Diana’s only concern is her mother’s disapproval of IVF, but any doubts raised are quickly eclipsed by Diana’s joy of being pregnant.

As Diana is finding delight in every aspect of motherhood, Catriona keeps waiting for the rush of adoration she knows she is supposed to feel, but instead slips into a deep depression. Just as Catriona begins to find her way back to normalcy, one of the babies is kidnapped. Suddenly, all of their lives begin to unravel and intertwine, and none of them will ever be the same.


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Thursday, September 30, 2010

She has your eyes."

Catriona laughed at her husband's joke, even though she didn't find it particularly funny. She welcomed any distraction from the acute vulnerability she felt at her nakedness covered only by a stiff hospital gown, and nerves so debilitating she could barely keep her body still on the examination bed.

"Let's hope he doesn't inherit his father's sense of humor," she said.

Together Catriona and James stared at the petri dish that sat next to a microscope and a catheter on a bench in the corner of the procedure room. In the dish was an embryo—a floating speck smaller than a grain of sand—created for them five days earlier. After enduring two months of hormone injections, blood tests and egg-extraction surgery they were finally at the implantation stage of their IVF cycle.

Doctor Malapi walked into the procedure room, and the sight of his familiar face calmed Catriona's nerves. There was something in his kind smile, his gentle way of speaking that put her at ease, even though the lilting tone of his voice also caused her to feel so drowsy that she sometimes struggled to pay attention to what he was saying.

"It's hot in here, isn't it?" he said as he walked over to a remote control sitting in a bracket attached to the wall. He pressed a button and the air-conditioning unit emitted a rattle in response, but otherwise seemed to offer no relief from the heat.

Doctor Malapi turned to Catriona and James. "Well," he said, clasping his hands together. "Let's make a baby, shall we?"

He instructed Catriona to lie back on the bed while the embryologist, a young woman wearing a surgical cap and scrubs, prepared the catheter. James took hold of Catriona's hand and squeezed it gently in mute support. She wet her lips, which had gone dry, with the tip of her tongue and looked up at him, wondering if her face showed the same mix of concern and excitement. He looked like a kid on Christmas morning who wasn't sure if the wrapped present under the tree held a skipping rope or a snake. He didn't even seem to realize that his glasses had slipped down onto the bridge of his nose, so she reached over to him and pushed them back into place. When they first started dating four years ago she had encouraged him to switch to contact lenses, but now she couldn't imagine him without his glasses; they were as familiar to her as his smile, which crinkled his cheeks like origami folds, and the solitary patch of gray hair on his left temple.

The embryologist handed the catheter to Doctor Malapi and left the room.

"Are you ready?" he asked as he stood poised with the catheter in his hand. "If you like I can put on some Barry White while we do this part."

Catriona and James laughed politely at what was obviously one of his often-repeated repertoire of jokes. But, in spite of his poor sense of humor, Catriona appreciated his attempt to lighten the mood. She and James felt lucky to have found Doctor Malapi. They had spent a lot of time with him over the past few months and were impressed with the care he had taken to explain the complicated IVF process to them. He had been recommended to Catriona through a woman at work who had suddenly decided, at the age of forty-five, that she wanted to have children. Catriona was nearly a decade younger, but she shared the woman's frustration of her body not aligning to her change of heart. Catriona was sure that if she had wanted children ten years earlier, she would have become pregnant easily. Then she wouldn't be lying on this bed, waiting for a doctor to shove a tube into her nether regions while her husband fretted beside her.

"Doctor Malapi," Catriona said as he sat on a stool at the end of the bed, "how long will it take before I know if I'm pregnant? Can I do a test in a couple of days?"

Doctor Malapi shifted from his seated position behind Catriona's bent knees so he could look at her while he answered her question. "We don't recommend taking a home pregnancy test. The hormones we gave you while we were trying to develop your eggs can distort the reading, so we don't want you thinking you're pregnant if you're not, or vice versa."

"That makes sense," James said.

"The nurses at the front desk will organize for you to come in for a blood test in two weeks," Doctor Malapi said. "That will tell us whether or not you're pregnant. So, you'll need to take it easy until then, just in case you are."

He instructed her to take a deep breath as he inserted the catheter into her uterus. She stared at a television mounted on the ceiling for women who were in her predicament, even though it wasn't turned on. She wished it was, if only to drown out the sounds in the room that exacerbated the intensity of the situation—the rattle from the air conditioner, the tick of the clock on the far wall and the occasional rustle as Doctor Malapi shifted position. Trying to keep the lower part of her body still, Catriona wiped her hand across her face and collected the few drops of moisture that had pooled in the crevice above her top lip. She felt sweat prickling under her arms and dampening the fabric of the hospital gown bunched under her back.

Catriona flinched as she felt a sudden jolt of pain, and James squeezed her hand tighter.

"Are you okay, babe?" he asked, his eyes wide with concern.

She nodded and wriggled her fingers, trying to get him to loosen his grip on her hand. Catriona knew that if James could swap places with her, he would. The one sore point in their otherwise happy marriage was that James's desire to take care of her sometimes clashed with her well-developed independence. As she often tried to explain to him, she had taken care of herself for more than thirty years before she met him, and she had done a good job of it. She didn't need someone to make sure she had taken time between meetings to have lunch, or to tell her that she needed to turn off her laptop and get some sleep. James usually responded with a smile and a promise that he wouldn't say anything any more—a promise that he promptly broke at the same time the next day.

Toward the end of the fifteen-minute procedure, Catriona wondered again how she would respond if her child ever asked how they were conceived. It wasn't as sweet and straightforward as the Where did I come from? book her mother had read to her when she was young.

Well, darling, after Mommy had surgery and Daddy jerked off into a container, a scientist put the eggs and sperm together in a little plastic dish. Then, after you spent a few days in something sort of like an oven, a nice doctor pushed you out of a tube and into Mommy's womb.

She stifled a laugh and resisted the urge to share the thought with James and Doctor Malapi. Laughing didn't seem an appropriate reaction considering what was happening. James was used to her blurting out inappropriate things at inappropriate times, but Doctor Malapi would probably think she had gone mad.

After a few more awkward minutes, Doctor Malapi carefully withdrew the catheter. "Okay, you're all done," he said.

Catriona drew her knees together and straightened the gown over them while Dr. Malapi called the embryologist back into the room. She inspected the catheter under the microscope, presumably to make sure the embryo hadn't clung on to the tube in defiance instead of obligingly transferring to its new home, while Dr. Malapi busied himself at the sink.

"Can I sit up?" Catriona asked him after the embryologist confirmed the catheter was empty and left the room again.

"Not just yet," he answered without turning around. "We'll keep you lying down for ten minutes or so. After that you're fine to get up and walk around."

After he finished at the sink, Doctor Malapi turned back to face Catriona and James. A few beads of sweat decorated the lined skin of his forehead, which he blotted with a handkerchief before he addressed them. "Now, I have to reiterate that we don't know for sure if the embryo will transfer successfully, so don't be too disheartened if you don't get pregnant first time around. Remember that for couples over thirty-five, like yourselves, the success rate from the first implantation is just over thirty percent."

"So, what happens if we don't get pregnant?" James asked. "How long do we have to wait until we try again?"

"That's up to you. We can book another procedure as soon as you like, but your embryos will last for years in the cryogenic unit, so there's no rush."

Catriona let out an involuntary shudder. She had been horrified when Doctor Malapi explained how their extra embryos would be snap-frozen, like a bag of peas from the supermarket. He had shown them the cryogenic unit—a cylinder with mist bubbling on the surface like a witch's cauldron—but since then every time he mentioned it Catriona pictured her potential sons or daughters shoved into the freezer in the clinic's tea room, among leftover lamb casserole and half-eaten loaves of bread. Doctor Malapi told them four viable embryos had been created during the fertilization stage of their IVF cycle; the three extras were going into the freezer with the lamb casserole until she and James decided what to do with them.

"Well, okay, then," Doctor Malapi said. He smiled at them both in turn. "I'll leave you to rest for a while. Just come out when you're ready and the nurses will set up that blood test for you in two weeks."

He rested his hand on James's shoulder before he walked out the door. "Good luck. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you."

"Thank you," Catriona and James said in unison.

The mood in the car on the ride home was a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Catriona and James chatted non-stop about the procedure, the blood test and the declining quality of Doctor Malapi's jokes as they left the city and drove through the terrace-lined streets of their neighborhood, a suburb in the inner west of Sydney that managed to retain its quaint village atmosphere despite the abundance of million-dollar properties and cafes charging twenty dollars for a plate of scrambled eggs.

Catriona and James both worked full-time and long hours—Catriona was a marketing manager at a telecommunications company, and James was a financial planner—so it was unusual for them to be driving home so early in the afternoon that peak-hour traffic had not yet clogged the roads with a parade of commuters. The streets near their local elementary school were just starting to fill with cars as parents readied themselves for finishing time.

"That'll be you one day," James said as they passed a woman walking toward the school, presumably to pick up her child, while pushing a younger child in a stroller.

Catriona stared at her, trying to picture herself in the woman's place, but failing.

"Can you really see me with a baby?" she asked James, her voice thick with the concern she felt every time she thought about becoming a mother. It wasn't pregnancy or childbirth that made her nervous; it was knowing that her way of life would transform to one that was unknown, and largely out of her control.

"Of course I can. You'll be a great mom."

She wondered how he could say that with such confidence.

"Hypocrite, more like," Catriona said, trying to sound more upbeat than she felt. "After years of telling everyone I'm not mother material."

"Who cares?" James said with a shrug as he pulled up to a set of traffic lights and looked across at her. "People change their minds."

She raised her eyebrows. "Or have it changed for them."

He smiled at her and reached across the gearstick to squeeze her knee. "I knew I'd wear you down eventually."

She couldn't help but smile back at him. He was right. Catriona knew from early on in their relationship that James was desperate to become a father. He cast longing glances at babies in cafes and leafed through toy catalogues from the pile of junk mail on the coffee table. Conversations with friends and family were abandoned as soon as children walked into the room because James preferred playing with the kids to talking to the adults.

"Just promise that you won't let me become one of those mothers who can only talk about their children," Catriona said. "If my topics of conversation can't get past mastitis and controlled crying, then I give you permission to divorce me. I've seen plenty of my friends turn from intelligent, interesting women to mothers who can't remember or speak about a world B.C."


"Before children."

James laughed. "Come on, you're being a bit harsh, aren't you? There's nothing wrong with talking about your children."

"That's what you say now. You don't see what they're all like. The other day, when I went out to lunch with the girls, they spent a good hour discussing different weaning techniques. I nearly went and joined the table next to us just so I could talk about something else. Promise me you'll tell me if I start doing that."

He nodded, trying hard to look solemn. "All right, I promise. If you can't stop talking about your nipples, I'll stage an intervention for you."

James pulled into the driveway of the terrace house he and Catriona had shared for the past three years. After an emotional day she felt a rush of relief and affection at the sight of the gray exterior and the red door—and for the frangipani tree in the front yard she had convinced James to keep even though it was bare for six months of the year and dropped flowers all over their yard throughout summer. It was the last day of September, a month into spring, so the branches were covered with large, boat-shaped leaves but no flowers yet. In two months the first white buds would appear, a herald to the start of summer.

Catriona and James had discussed whether the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house was too small to raise a child in, but properties in their neighborhood were expensive, so if they wanted a bigger place they would have to move further out of the city. James was keen, but Catriona wasn't ready to give up her urban lifestyle yet. Let's just see how it goes, she'd said.

James turned to Catriona after he switched off the ignition. "I'm going to grab a coffee from Greco's. Do you want to come?"

Their favorite coffee shop was at the end of their street. The baristas made a mean coffee, but the main reason Catriona loved to go there was for their eggs Benedict. The owner saved Catriona and James the corner table outside on Sunday mornings and their ritual was to order the eggs, drink a couple of skim flat whites and read through the Sunday papers. Catriona read the news and health sections while James made his way through the sports pages. It was her favorite part of the week.

"You go," she said. "I feel a bit drained. I'll just lie on the couch and watch some bad TV for a while. I'll see what Judge Judy is up to."

James stepped out of the car and then rushed around to Catriona's side to help her out.

"You don't have to do that, I'm probably not even pregnant yet," she said, a smile hinting at the corner of her lips.

He kissed her forehead. "I know. I just want to take care of you."

Catriona put her keys on the hall table and absently straightened one of the framed photographs lining the hallway before she looked into the mirror hanging on the wall above the table. She wasn't sure what exactly she was looking for. A glint in her eyes, maybe? A flush in her cheeks? That aura of calm she was sure she had detected radiating from mothers even when their child was scrawling markers over walls or had just pushed over another child in the playground? Would she ever master that level of serenity? Her reflection didn't give away any clues. The only thing out of the ordinary it showed was a pair of bloodshot eyes—red spider webs radiating out from bright green irises—but they were courtesy of a sleepless night spent worrying about how the procedure would go. She saw in her reflection that her short blonde hair was flattened on one side from the way she had lain on the examination bed. Her first instinct was to reprimand James for not telling her to fix it, but then she realized that in his distracted state he probably wouldn't have noticed if her hair had turned purple. His mind had been preoccupied with only one thought: whether or not he was about to become a father.

They had been trying to get pregnant for the past two years, since they got engaged. Catriona was disappointed each month when her period arrived, but it was nothing compared to the dread she felt about telling James they still weren't pregnant and witnessing his crestfallen response. When they eventually went to a fertility clinic they found out they both had reasons that were making it difficult for them to conceive. Catriona had a blocked fallopian tube, which meant her eggs weren't passing into her uterus every other month, and James had a low sperm count. So, with that double-hit of negative news, they realized their chances of becoming pregnant without assistance were negligible.

The decision to try IVF hadn't been an easy one for either of them. Even though they both earned high salaries and could afford the expensive treatments, the pragmatic side of James struggled with the thought of spending the cost of a small car on what was essentially a gamble. Catriona's concern with IVF had been more to do with the invasiveness of the procedures. A friend had told horror stories about the blood tests, ultrasounds and hormone injections, as well as the indignity of having eggs surgically extracted and then reimplanted as an embryo. Catriona and James had considered adoption or surrogacy as an alternative to IVF, but in the end they decided they wanted their baby to be a product of the two of them, a combination of their best traits.

Two weeks later Catriona visited the clinic to have a sample of her blood taken. She had spent the past fortnight scrutinizing her body for changes and kept imagining she felt a flutter in her belly, even though she knew full well that after two weeks she wouldn't have been able to feel a baby. She found herself losing track of the conversation in meetings, rereading emails several times before she could understand what they said and nearly missing her bus stop on the commute home from work. One day as she ran errands on her lunch hour she stopped still in the middle of the busy city street, causing a man behind her to step on the back of her heel, pitching her forward. She had been brought to a standstill by an advertising poster plastered onto the side of a bus: an image of a small child eating cereal. She mumbled an apology to the man, adjusted her shoe and scolded herself for letting her emotions take over. But it was no use fighting it. Every thought and every activity was overshadowed by the perpetual question running through her mind: Am I or aren't I?

Later that night, while she was at home making dinner, the phone rang. Her heart started to race with anticipation, but she forced herself to stay calm as she answered the call.

"I'm running late, sorry," James said. "My probation meeting went over."

Catriona let out the breath she was holding on to. "God, don't do that to me. I thought it was the clinic."

"Sorry, babe. You must be going crazy. So, no call yet?"

"Nothing yet. How was your meeting?"

"Oh, you know, the same. I can't wait to be done with them."

"I know. Only one more year."

Regular probation meetings were a requirement of the three-year good-behavior bond James had been granted by the court, instead of prison time, after he had been arrested two years earlier for his assistance in the cultivation of a commercial quantity of cannabis.

It had seemed so out of character when James was arrested that Catriona initially asked police whether they had the wrong person. As she told them, James wouldn't even park the car without putting money in a meter. And to be arrested for growing cannabis? They had once shared a joint with a few friends during a ski trip, but other than that she didn't think James had ever touched drugs. But when the story eventually came out, and Catriona learned that it was James's oldest friend, Spencer, who had been responsible for turning a rented country house into a hydroponic marijuana greenhouse, it all made sense.

Spencer's juvenile and adult life had been littered with drug convictions, assault charges and illegal schemes he managed to coerce friends and family to be part of. Remarkably, Spencer had talked his way out of most of his past offenses by paying a fine or doing community service, but this one had rewarded him with a five-year prison sentence. Spencer had convinced James to handle the financial aspects of the cannabis operation—the banking, rent and bills Spencer couldn't have in his own name without arousing suspicion from the police, given his criminal record.

Catriona still couldn't understand why James agreed to help Spencer, and how he had kept it from her without hinting that something was awry. She had stopped bringing it up with him because it always caused an argument, but it still concerned her when she allowed herself to think about it. She knew that James felt a sense of loyalty toward Spencer because they had been friends since elementary school, and she admired that about him, but surely loyalty could only stretch so far. She blamed Spencer for the estranged relationship James had with his parents. Even though James said he had never been close to them, they had still been a part of his life and had visited him whenever they came down to Sydney from Brisbane, where James had grown up and his parents still lived. But their refusal to lend him the money to pay the bail for Spencer's drug conviction had led to a huge fight. Spencer had ended up in prison, and James said he wanted nothing to do with his parents. The only contact since then had been an impersonal exchange of birthday and Christmas cards. Catriona felt that James had overreacted and hoped he would reconcile with them one day. His parents could become grandparents soon, and Catriona didn't want to deny her child a relationship with them over something that could easily be resolved.

Ten minutes after she hung up the phone, James walked into the kitchen and kissed Catriona's cheek. She was standing at the stove cooking dinner, a trail of steam illuminated in the light from the range hood.

"Why don't you turn the fan on?" he asked, leaning past her to flick the switch.

It roared to life above Catriona's head, startling her. She turned it off. "The noise makes me anxious. And I can't deal with any extra anxiety today."

James stood next to her at the stove, assessing the contents she was stirring around a wok. "Chicken stir-fry?"

She nodded. "I can't concentrate enough to make anything more complicated. So, your meeting was horrible?"

"It was fine. It's just annoying that I have to keep going to them. I'm so tempted to blow them off. Especially since we might have a lot more on our plates soon." He patted her stomach and walked over to the fridge.

Catriona turned around to look at him, the stir-fry forgotten. "You have to go to them, you know that. If you don't, you'll go to jail."

"Babe, I know, okay? I was joking." He took a bottle of beer from the fridge and sat on one of the stools nestled under the breakfast bar. They had bought the designer wooden stools when they renovated the kitchen after moving into the terrace. James found them uncomfortable and impractical; Catriona liked that they matched the dining table and said it didn't matter if they were uncomfortable. As usual, she had won the argument.

"If we do get pregnant you can't use that as an excuse not to go," Catriona said.

James thumped his bottle onto the breakfast bar, splashing beer over the stone bench top. "I know that. You don't have to treat me like a child. I've been going to them for nearly two years now and I've never missed a single one."

"Don't yell at me."

"I'm not yelling at you, I just…" He sighed and walked over to the pantry, taking from it a paper towel to mop up his spilled beer. "I'm sorry, Cat. I'm just so nervous. I haven't been able to think straight all day. Why hasn't Doctor Malapi called yet? What does that mean? Do you think it's bad news?"

Catriona started to spoon the cooked stir-fry into bowls as she spoke. "He'll call, regardless of whether the news is good or bad."

She had done her best to hide her nerves from James. He always said she was the strong one in their relationship, and from the state he was in she knew he needed her support more than she needed his.

"And what if we're not pregnant?" James asked.

"If we're not, we're not. You know what Doctor Malapi said: we have a thirty percent chance with our first attempt. So, that's a seventy percent chance against."

"Thanks, Einstein."

Catriona pushed one of the bowls toward James and walked around the breakfast bar to sit next to him on the spare stool. "So, how was—"

She was interrupted by the sound of her cell phone ringing. It was a noise Catriona heard several times a day but it seemed louder now, more insistent. They exchanged a nervous glance before James picked up the phone from the kitchen bench, looked at the number and then handed it to her. "You answer. I can't."

Catriona gingerly held the phone up to her ear. She recognized the soothing voice immediately.

"Catriona? It's Doctor Malapi. Sorry to call you so late, but I just got your blood-test results back and I thought you'd want to know the news straightaway."

Catriona paused, waiting for the words she had wanted to hear for the past two years.

"You're pregnant! Congratulations."

Doctor Malapi went on with some other information about ultrasounds and checkups, but Catriona wasn't paying attention. She silently repeated his joyous words to herself over and over again. You're pregnant. You're pregnant. You're pregnant. James was watching her intently, trying to follow the conversation from the expression on Catriona's face. He mirrored her smile and started nodding his head in question, his eyebrows raised. She only just remembered to thank Doctor Malapi before she hung up.

"We are, aren't we?" James asked. "We're pregnant?"

Her heart fluttered in her chest like a trapped butterfly. "We are. We're going to have a baby!"

Later that night, as Catriona lay in bed with James snoring softly next to her, she tried to imagine what kind of mother she would be. Tough but fair, she decided. The type of mother other mothers admired. The type of mother whose child never threw a tantrum in the supermarket, or ran away in a car park, or bit another kid in the playground.

She smiled as she rested her hands on her still-flat abdomen. "And I promise, no matter what," she whispered, "I'm going to love you with all my heart."


  • Riveting, fast-paced, and fluidly written, this is an intensely emotional read. Ortlepp's heart-wrenching debut would be great for book clubs owing to the many ethical questions raised in the novel. Fans of Brooke Shields's Down Came the Rain and Iris ­Johansen's "Eve Duncan" series will appreciate this compelling tale. VERDICT: A captivating novel for those who read for character as well as enthusiasts of women's fiction.—Library Journal starred review
  • Australian author Amanda Ortlepp's first novel, set in Sydney, is a gripping, emotionally charged story....—Herald Sun
  • This is an intriguing tale.—RT Book Reviews
  • "CLAIMING NOAH is a compelling novel from a new voice in fiction."—Culture Street
  • "Complex and thought-provoking, CLAIMING NOAH is one of those books that invites opinions and discussions."—The Blurb Magazine
  • "[CLAIMING NOAH] will tug at your heartstrings as it considers the very sensitive issues of infertility, IVF and embryo donation."—Styling You
  • "Some of the most endearing characters I have ever read about."—Aussie Bookworm
  • "What Ortlepp does so well is bring the characters to life...with exposed fears, entrenched defensive mechanisms and the everyday push and pull of relationships."—The Australian Bookshelf

On Sale
Jul 5, 2016
Page Count
384 pages
Center Street

Amanda Ortlepp

About the Author

Amanda Ortlepp is a Sydney-based writer, born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1981. As a child she was a voracious reader with ambitions of one day becoming an author. Instead she completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree after high school, followed by a Masters of Applied Finance, and spent a decade working in marketing and communication roles. It was only after she turned thirty that she revisited her love of fiction and started writing at nights and on weekends while working full-time.
Her debut novel, Claiming Noah, was first published in 2015. Its ethical dilemmas and emotionally charged themes struck a chord with mothers and book clubs in particular and became a bestseller.
Amanda’s second novel, Running Against the Tide, was published in 2016. It’s a story about long-held prejudices and fractured relationships, set in a remote fishing town in South Australia.

Learn more about this author