Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bookshelf: Midwives

I just finished the novel Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian, and it completely blew me away. I'm a bit irritated that I waited so long to read this book!

This novel has been on my periphery for awhile, meaning that it's one of those that I see when I go into bookstores, pick up, read the back, and say to myself I should read this some time. Except it's never "sometime." Until today. 

It is, simply, an amazing novel, one of my five-star reads. The story seems like it will be a typical family drama/courtroom type of novel: Sibyl, an experienced midwife practicing in Vermont, loses a mother during delivery, but managed to save the baby with an emergency C-section once the mother was dead. Or was she? 

But Bohjalian takes what would be good plot anyway and makes it memorable and exciting. The narrator is not Sibyl, but her fourteen-year old daughter, Connie (Constance). She overhears her parents, reads her mother's journal, and hears her parents talking with Stephen, their charismatic lawyer, but her point of view is fairly limited. We are introduced to people in her world--her boyfriend, Tom and her best friend, Rollie--and also, the family of the dead woman. 
The night of the birth is told in a somewhat detached third person, and we don't know everything. 

Instead of a linear story, Bohjalian sprinkles in details throughout the novel. We know from the beginning that Sibyl goes to trial. We hear bits and pieces of testimony as the novel progresses, and we have flashbacks and "flash-forwards." Connie is telling the story from the view point of an adult (whom, we learn, is an OB/GYN and single).  This way of storytelling makes the reader much more involved in the novel, and makes the reading much more meticulous, since all the pieces are introduced at what can appear to be random times. It often feels like Connie is having a discussion with you. 

Every chapter begins with an excerpt from Sibyl's "notebooks"--her three-ring, looseleaf binders that serve as her personal journals. These are the only first-person glimpse we get of her throughout the novel. 

Bohjalian takes what is normally Jodi Picoult territory and elevates it to literature. The characters are real and vibrant and their situation so absorbing that you think about them even after the novel is over. 

(Note: No, I did not know this was an Oprah book club past pick when I picked it up!)

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