Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child is (oddly) hard to put down. Odd because it’s not plot-y, but instead a family drama that follows Jane, a devout Catholic mother, and her eldest daughter, Lauren, as they live the pro-life/pro-choice division. So why was it hard to put down? I guess it’s the smooth writing (smooth writing? what is that? Just trust me. Smoooooth) and the fascination with watching as Jane tries to live in the impossible extreme of ‘no exceptions’ in the pro-life argument.
I appreciated that the book kept the reader as some distance from the intensity of decision making around abortion, and instead allowed characters to explore these options in the gaps between chapters or the switch between limited third person narrators. This distancing kept this reader from being overwhelmed by a call to personal connection that might have made empathy challenging. Instead the reader is offered a sympathetic and entirely human portrait of trying to navigate the political, personal, religious and maternal dimensions of abortion that keeps enough distance to avoid triggering the reader’s existing beliefs about abortion and to invite the observation of how these women make sense of it.
I struggled in parts with what I think was meant to be subtly and slow revelation of some climactic character development, but for this tired reader was just too nuanced for me to make sense of. There’s a section, for instance, where Jane is revealing something [avoiding spoilers] about her children and her past, and I just… didn’t get it. It’s possible I missed an earlier reference point that would have let me make sense of what she was revealing, but whatever the case the section didn’t land and I was left thinking maybe it would be resolved later, but never was. I really can’t decide whether this is a fault of the book or of my reading habits which I freely admit involve a lot of the last twenty minutes before falling asleep right now, and so are not at my… sharpest.
This book was made for discussion among a book club, and I’m SO hoping my book club can resume in the fall, perhaps with this one (hey crew? maybe?). If your book club decides to read it, do let me know the kinds of questions that get explored. I mean you could read it by yourself, too. I GUESS.
In a deep reading funk I asked M. what to read and she suggested anything by Edwidge Danticat. And it’s proof that you can think you know things about books and yet the world is so full of incredible authors and miraculous stories that you just… don’t know anything [generalizable lesson here for me on the hubris of claiming to know things about books]. Because I’d never heard of Danticat before (my failure) and Claire of the Sea Light is excellent and so I’ve ordered more and am eager.
Claire of the Sea Light opens with the story of Claire and her father (her mother died in childbirth) and how Claire’s birth and birthday is twinned with death. From there the book weaves characters and their relationship to their parents or parenting, to truth (and the risks of telling it) and to what it means to be family. There’s a fairytale quality to the writing and similar tropes of fables: orphaned or abandoned children, the lure of the woods/the sea and the perils of trusting others (particularly single women WHO MIGHT BE WITCHES). But it’s decidedly of the here and now with the politics of Haiti a backdrop for the impossible choices characters are asked to make in the service of their children.
I should add that I also ordered one of Danticat’s books for children, My Mommy Medicine, which R. said was “pretty okay.” So if you’re not down for a whole novel right now you can get a sense of Danticat from a picture book.
Things I have learned from novels, a short list: enter all cupboards that look maybe magical because they might well be magical; most of everything I know about Canadian history; the geography of PEI; too much about the Blitz; some things about scuba diving. All this to say whenever I read a novel I learn. If nothing else I learn what I like from writing, but usually there’s something in the plot/setting/character/theme that is interesting or new or important that I haven’t come across before. Part of why I like novels (so much) more than non-fiction is that most often this teaching-learning happens by accident, by way of story. Like oops you just learned a whole thing about whaling (but seriously, Moby Dick is a bad example of this kind of learning because of the endless chapters just describing whaling implements).
Digression. R. is really into made-up stories where I tell him a “Golidlocks” story, which is really just any story with the main character named Goldilocks. Usually Goldilocks is a squirrel that lives in a radio tower. ANYWAY. I recently remembered that I could use these made-up stories in a very heavy handed way to reinforce annoying parenting lessons about crossing the street, or being kind, or not-throwing-rocks-at-your-sister.
So not actually a digression. Because it turns out that Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, is a similar sort of story. One interested in teaching the reader some things about trans women and sure that the only way to do so is if The Story is Very Clear. The only problem is the reader is (probably not) a preschooler, and so some more subtly wouldn’t hurt (tbh some more subtly would probably be appreciated by R., too). Which is not the same thing as saying the book shouldn’t offer the reader insight or a perspective on being trans and wanting a baby, more that there’s some kind of difference between a story that invites a reader to empathy and experience with a character and one that explains what a character thinks, feels, and wants in a way that is meant to teach you about it. I fear I’m not explaining the difference well. Ha ha.
Whatever the case if you can get past the explaining this book has merits. Like some of the writing is good. And it was novel for me to read a book exploring queer families and I sometimes think things about maternity and parenting and bodies and so I appreciated the chance to think afresh on these ideas. It also had a decent, if somewhat dissatisfying, ending. Oh and some properly funny scenes.
In the ten plus years of writing Literary Vice I’ve never commented on the death of an author (though I’m sure I’ve rambled about the death of the author at some point). And for good reason. While I have favourites whose work I seek out and enjoy, I’m mostly not bothered by biography or terribly interested in the what’s what of an author.
But I wanted to mark Beverly Cleary’s death because her books, and the Ramona series in particular, matter to me. I’ve written here before on how Ramona offered me a certainty and comfort in moments of distress and it remains true these quiet stories of a remarkably curious, imaginative and determined girl, achingly aware of how she is meant to fit in but never quite does… resonate.
One of the best gifts I received when I was pregnant with R. was the boxed set of Beverly Cleary. The gift, from C., was intended, I’m sure, for R. but was, of course, for me. I remember opening it and being so excited for the moment I’d be able to share the stories with a small human, and excited more for how that small human might also come to love a world of true-to-a-child challenges overcome by persistence, caring adults and asking for help. Sort of like the world I hoped might be possible for my child.
R. listened to Ramona for the better part of an hour tonight (I’m no hero, we have the audiobooks out from the library), as he has for the past months since discovering them. And now he asks simply for “another Ramona” and I have accrued a small fortune in fines because he Cannot Part with Ramona the Pest. And I cannot say no to a small human who loves Ramona as I do.
I know Ramona doesn’t and can’t connect for all readers the way it did for me, and so I offer this note of appreciation without my usual urging that you seek it out for yourself or a child you know and love. More that I wanted to say I am grateful – always – for the magic worked by stories. And grateful for the work of Beverly Cleary in creating and sharing Ramona with me. These are books I love.