After Birth

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2015

 

Pruning in an undissipating cloud of postpartum depression in Utrecht, New York a full year after her Caesarean section, Ari develops a preemptive fascination with the woman subletting her neighbor’s house: Mina Morris, the bass player from a late-eighties Oregon punk girl band called the Misogynists, now an acclaimed poet with a visiting fellow­ship at the local university. Despite an attempt of friendly landlord-by-proxy emails to her new crush, however, Ari continues to restrict herself to her own domicile, leaving only to work her weekly shift at the co-op and flail with her unwritten dissertation.

When faraway sightings of Mina around town reveal that the former punk rocker is on the brink of giving birth, Ari reflects on her own pregnancy and first months with the baby. She has not overcome the trauma of her surgery, or that of her curtailed relationship with her “Bitch from hell” mother, the daugh­ter of a Holocaust survivor who survived the camps as young comfort woman to the Nazi guards and, prone to miscarriages in her later life, underwent experimental fertility treat­ments that bloomed into terminal cancer in the baby they saved—Ari’s mother—when Ari was a young girl. Struggling with the isolation of rearing a child without maternal guidance, Ari turns to memories of her mother to punish herself and slump further into untreated depression and self-loathing.

But when Mina seems to be even more alone in the world with her newborn that winter, Ari finds a new sense of purpose. As the two women nest in the sublet home, com­munally nursing and caring for their children together, Ari reconsiders every significant female relationship she’s ever held, question­ing the particular brand of feminism to which her mentors anointed her and embracing her new, self-appointed role as “the town wetnurse.” But is this utopia of sisterly love that Ari and Mina have established sustain­able? Tensions rise as both women adapt to motherhood and learn to cope with the harsh family histories they each carry, ultimately finding comfort in the friends they never knew they had.

Abrasively honest and refreshingly un­couth, Elisa Albert’s seething new novel is an unapologetic rage of womanhood, childbirth, feminism, and family.

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