I decided that I wasn't going to do a review, not because I didn't want to read the book, but because I knew I had a heck of a month coming up at work and didn't know if I would have the time to devote to reading the book and writing a review. Then Rachel Cusk's review of the book came out in the New York Times and I decided that I wasn't going to stand idly by while some hoity-toity, non-reproductively challenged
First of all, I admire anyone brave enough to put their story out there for the general public, knowing that they're probably going to be ripped to shreds because the topic is an uncomfortable one and wrought with judgement and lack of understanding and empathy. Many thanks to Julia for adding a much needed book to an important category.
I downloaded the book on iBooks for, I think, $12.99 US. I probably would have preferred a paper copy of the book, but I also seem to be lacking in advance planning skills as of late and didn't get it ordered in time, so the virtually instantaneous access that an e-book offered was right up my alley. Plus I apparently had iTunes credit, so that was nice too. Anyway, the e-book format wasn't as refined as others that I've read, but I don't have any complaints about it, particularly since I was reading within two minutes of buying it.
Based on the cover alone, which depicts a woman holding a newborn, I might not have even picked it up for fear that it was just another "happy ending includes a baby" infertility book. In this case, I had the advantage of recommendations from Pamela and Mali, so I knew that the happy ending of the book didn't include a baby.
The book itself was short. I'm not sure how many pages the paper book has, but my e-book had 79 pages with my font size settings. I read it in about two hours in one sitting while sipping on a big glass of wine. I read it again a few days later and it took a bit longer because I was making careful notes of things I wanted to touch on in this review. The fact that it is such a short read is definitely an asset, I think.
I appreciated the author's ability to say so much with so few words. Essentially the book chronicled Julia falling in love with the man she would later marry and try to have a child with, that marriage falling apart, trying to conceive with sperm from a known donor, and then falling in love with her life and accepting that she'd never have children. The chronology of the story line was easy to follow.
There were so many times where I found myself nodding my head in agreement or understanding. For example, early in the book she describes her "deeply ambivalent view of motherhood." I get this. Like Julia, I wasn't sure if I wanted kids at all, until I wanted them, and then I wanted them really bad, including the "irrational leap" she made when she concluded that her chances would be better than other women her age. It took me right back to the crazy part of trying to have a baby, because I did the exact same thing! I also appreciated her honesty about the toll that trying to have a baby took on their sex life. I think that anybody who tried to have a baby for any length of time can relate to this.
At one point she talked about "our child," a concept that I fully related to. While hubs and I never ventured down the IVF path, our hypothetical child was very real to us too (including the discussing names), but I've never quite been able to figure out how to talk about it. Julia did this for me. Since I can't say it any better than she did, the quote from the book is:
“I’m an expert at make-believe. Our child was not unreal to me. It was not a real child but also it was not unreal. Maybe a better way to say it is that the unknown unconceived had been an inner presence. A desired and nurtured inner presence. Not real but a singular presence in which I had radical faith. A presence that could not be substituted or replaced.”I could also relate to Julia and Paul's (the partner/husband/ex-husband) first trip to the fertility clinic, right down to dressing smartly. She described the fertility clinic as a "temple of discretion" and honestly she could have been describing our fertility clinic too.
Regarding Paul, I must admit that there were a few points where the big sister in me wanted to grab Julia by the shoulders, look her dead in the eye, and tell her to run the hell away from that man and never look back because he wasn't good for her. But love is a weird thing, especially when the good parts are so good.
I loved her detailed descriptions of egg collection, IUI, IVF, donor sperm, and a variety of other important facets of the reproductive process. I felt these descriptions would be really important for someone just dipping their toe into the world of infertility or assisted reproduction or if the reader was someone who was supporting a person going through treatment. I also really appreciated how she gave the actual cost for each and every procedure. I think that so often these costs are hidden or spoken of in generalities, so I appreciated how upfront she was about it. I liked how she was quick to point out that because of past financial windfall she was able to pay for treatment without incurring significant debt or hardship, and acknowledged that not everyone was in the same financial position as she was.
One of the most poignant parts of the book for me was when she touched on the societal perceptions of IVF patients. She said:
“In the public imagination – as I perceive it - there’s a qualified sympathy for IVF patients, not unlike that for smokers who get lung cancer. Unspoken: “You signed up for it, so what did you expect …?”I don't know how many times people have said thing that completely minimize the life-altering experience that infertility is, and the quote above captures that explicitly. There's always the assumption that we did something wrong or that we did something to deserve it.
My biggest takeaway from the book came on the last page, where Julia described her relationship with her nieces. This is something I've been making a more conscious effort to do. One of my nieces was born during the hardest parts of infertility and then two nieces and a nephew were born in the aftermath of accepting that we'd never have children in back to back to back pregnancies. For a long time I had to keep them at arm's length because it was too painful. For the longest time I looked at them and saw what we missed out on, but I'm starting to turn that attitude around and I'm starting to really enjoy spending time with them (and spoiling them).
In conclusion, ignore the NYT review (unless, of course, you want to write to the editor and tell them all of the reasons that the paper should be embarrassed that they published such a terrible review, in which case, go for it), acquire a copy of the book, and read it. I think that this book is important and adds to the conversation about the toll that infertility takes on a person and a couple as well as building a life after treatments don't work out.