Book Review: “The Long Answer”, by Anna Hogeland
THE LONG ANSWER, by Anna Hogeland
The question keeping many women awake at night right now is whether our government will revoke or defend our right to control and choose our reproductive destinies. For 50 years the law has recognized women’s bodies as private and women’s lives as our own, and now the right to choose our own destiny is under threat. What’s wrong with that? This is the question posed by this first novel.
It turns out that the “long answer” is made up of a wide range of complex realities for women with reproductive systems: childbirth, childbirth complications, miscarriage, D&E, stillbirth, abortion, gift of eggs, fertility treatments, pregnancy, pregnancy complications, infertility. This book addresses all of these experiences, a breathtaking overview of the many ways women carry and lose babies and pregnancies, so many possible and impossible choices to make, so much surrender and coercion to endure. All the stories in the novel make it clear that the one thing that makes it all bearable is the agency that every woman can claim.
The two women at the heart of the book are sisters, but they are not close. The novel begins with a phone call between a woman named Anna and her older sister, Margot, who reveals that she has miscarried her second child (she has a healthy infant son); Anna didn’t even know her sister was pregnant. But Anna is newly pregnant with her first child, so their conversation is cut off and brief. The sisters are unable to find common ground until they start discussing the intimate details of a third wife, Elizabeth, whose detailed story we get – instead of Anna and Margot’s. .
This story-within-a-story device occurs three times: although Anna, Margot, and their mother are ostensibly the main characters, they walk away and reveal very little of themselves. Instead, we hear in detail about the lives of three other women – Elizabeth, Corrie and Marisol – told by Anna. (The author is a therapist, and reading this book is reminiscent of someone else’s session.) These interlocking stories are where readers find women of color, bisexuals, women of color, and women of color. abuse and neglect, and a life-defining poverty. Each of these women appears, turns everything upside down and disappears from Anna’s life.
Anna is a keen observer of other women – we know this because in yoga class she notices Corrie’s nails are unpainted and her yoga clothes are cheap. But those details feel a little cheap on their own. Corrie is poor and her story is appalling and sad, but her issues are never resolved or explored as she only gets a one-episode arc. Does his story matter or not? With women living under the specter of disappearing reproductive rights – yes, her story matters: it is worth hearing and reading. From the perspective of the main character, Corrie is one of many stories that Anna uses to sort out and make sense of her own life.
Or, perhaps, give meaning to all our lives. Anna says it just as much: “I needed stories like this now. I needed it like I needed water and salt, to tell me what was possible in the course of a lifetime. I am there with her, eager for women’s stories, our stories, our portraits and our perspectives. Right now, those stories are crucial. I’ll listen to them all, even if this particular novel reads like a disturbing uncertainty as to whose story it is – the protagonist or the supporting characters. Whether or not this book brings their voices together harmoniously, it clarifies and reaffirms that precious little barriers separate women from reproductive bondage, and our stories – those lived stories heard, whispered, written in novels – continue to show that we have lives worth living. , that women are viable human beings.
Brenda Shaughnessy is the author, most recently, of “The Octopus Museum”. She has two new books, “Liquid Flesh: New and Selected Poems” and “Tanya”, coming out.
THE LONG ANSWER, by Anna Hogeland | 304 pages | Riverhead Books | $26