Elisa Albert’s newest novel, Human Blues, tells the story of Aviva Rosner, a veteran singer-songwriter on the verge of mainstream fame, as she tours the country and struggles to have a baby. Wary of reproductive technology like IVF, she spends much of the novel on an obsessive quest to become a mother the “natural” way. Over nine menstrual cycles, readers get to know every dark corner of Aviva’s mind: she is witty, honest, emotional, sarcastic, loving, blunt, judgmental, angry, and — frankly — sometimes quite mean. Though many of these characteristics might be construed as negative, Aviva’s depths of feeling make her a relatable and endearing character.
Part of this is no doubt due to Albert’s lyrical writing style that captures the raw emotions — the hard ones and the beautiful ones — that comprise the human experience. If Zadie Smith’s prose and Bob Dylan’s lyrics were to have a child, with just a dash of Holden Caulfield, it might resemble something like Human Blues. The rich language deserves savoring and will surely draw in many kinds of readers, not just those who yearn to be parents.
Aviva spends much of the novel feeling extremely angry at both her fertility challenges and the ways in which her culture — easily recognizable to contemporary readers — commodifies women. Her anger reflects many of the contradictory pressures that people, and women in particular, face in our high-pressure world. (Be a good parent! Have the best career! Make a lot of money! Take care of yourself! Be fit and sexy! Go to therapy! Don’t be too emotional!) What is so refreshing about Human Blues is that its Aviva recognizes how unfair this messaging is and wants none of it. Refusing society’s shallow, commercialized definition of femininity, Aviva allows her anger to fuel her creativity — which is precisely what gives the novel its power. It is not a spoiler to say that, over the course of the story, Aviva realizes the lies women have been taught about our own priorities, and her dedication to liberate herself from them is incredibly freeing. Human Blues can teach us all a thing or two about what it means to live authentically, especially as American women are forced to watch our human rights erode.
Leah Grisham, PhD is a writer and educator whose upcoming book, Heroic Disobedience: The Forced Marriage Plot, 1748 – 1880 will be published by Vernon Press in 2022. She writes about Jewish life, literature, and feminism.