Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

Title: Eleven Hours
Author: Pamela Erens
Publisher: Tin House
Publication date: May 2, 2016
Rating: ★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):
Lore arrives at the hospital alone—no husband, no partner, no friends. Her birth plan is explicit: she wants no fetal monitor, no IV, no epidural. Franckline, a nurse in the maternity ward—herself on the verge of showing—is patient with the young woman. She knows what it’s like to worry that something might go wrong, and she understands the pain when it does. She knows as well as anyone the severe challenge of childbirth, what it does to the mind and the body.

Eleven Hours is the story of two soon-to-be mothers who, in the midst of a difficult labor, are forced to reckon with their pasts and re-create their futures. Lore must disentangle herself from a love triangle; Franckline must move beyond past traumas to accept the life that’s waiting for her. Pamela Erens moves seamlessly between their begrudging friendship and the memories evoked by so intense an experience. At turns urgent and lyrical, Erens’s novel is a visceral portrait of childbirth, and a vivid rendering of the way we approach motherhood—with fear and joy, anguish and awe.

Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this electronic copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This book is SO "literary." It feels like a grad school writing prompt gone wild. But in a good way. (Really, what else would you expect from a publisher like Tin House?)

I requested Eleven Hours on NetGalley because I recognized the author, Pamela Erens. (Someone had recommended her previous book, The Virgins, as a better (less racist? - my words, not theirs) version of Eleanor & Park.) I haven't yet read The Virgins, but suffice it to say I was interested in her work.

The story is told from a third person perspective, following two characters - Lore Tannenbaum and her midwife Franckline. For me, Lore is the more compelling of the two, so I will focus on her here.

At the onset, Lore is not the most likable character. She is demanding and cool - perhaps too outwardly emotionless and independent for her own good. It's not easy to empathize with her, and the story's slightly detached point of view doesn't make it any easier. As the book progresses, we find out more about her relationships and the emotional pain she has experienced - all of the things that have led her to where she is at that moment - and though it doesn't exactly make us like her any better, it feels like we slowly come to understand her.

On a personal level, I found myself fiercely rooting for her. I understood her - I understood her compulsion to push people away in order to protect herself. I understood her need for control. I understood her seemingly cold nature and unwillingness to let herself get attached. It was fascinating to experience her journey through pregnancy, as well as her shifting attitudes toward this child that she carried.

My investment in Lore's wellbeing surprised even myself - I am not one for books about motherhood. I can barely stomach mommy blogs. A story about a woman giving birth? The miracle of life? Ummm. Thanks but no thanks. And yet I found Eleven Hours to be a surprisingly gripping read - there's just enough suspense to keep you turning the pages. For those of you who think books about birth are boring, THINK AGAIN. Birth is freaking terrifying and gory. It's like voluntarily turning your life into a horror film. Women are badass.

But I digress.

The book goes back and forth between past and present, shifting from a focus on Lore's life to Franckline's. The story seems to wander leisurely, the tension slowly building as Lore gets closer and closer to birth.

The writing really is something. Ideas are expressed so articulately - you'll read something and think, "Yes, exactly. That's exactly what it feels like." In some ways, I feel the writing is much stronger than the story. And in fact, Eleven Hours feels like less of a "story" and more like an exercise in empathy - it's like the author wanted to take a not-particularly-likable character and make the reader want to fight for her by the end of the story, whether or not you've experienced motherhood or pregnancy yourself. Whatever the intention, it worked for me. I am much more conscious and simultaneously in a state of awe and fear of pregnancy after reading this book. Lore Tannenbaum is certainly not someone I'll forget in a jiffy.

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