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25 May 2011


What's this? I am the first to comment? Ok, here goes:

1. I liked the dystopian futuristic narrative best, although the endless repetition of the powers that be correcting the prisoners’ speech (“egg-donor” for “mother” etc.) grated a bit; but then again, maybe it was meant to grate, to give the reader a feeling for the monotony of society under the Protectorate. Why? I think I just like stories about dystopian futures (the Handmaiden’s Tale, Never Let Me Go, 1984, Brave New World). They sort of scare me in a good way. Kavenna’s writing impressed me in how each part in the book was very distinct from the other.

2. They are tarot cards, major arcana. I noticed that right off and looked them up. I think they all fit pretty well with my understanding of the tarot, with maybe the exception of “The Hermit”. The Moon represents confusion, an inability to see clearly which suits Semmelweiss and his interrogator’s states of mind; the Empress represents motherhood, love and fertility which suits Bridget; the Tower represents destruction and imprisonment which fit with the futuristic storyline. The Hermit represents self-knowledge and I don’t see that the author, Michael, really gained any self-knowledge. I think he is as delusional and neurotic at the end of his story line as at the beginning. But then again, the tarot is very much open to interpretation and every card has a negative and a positive sense. So the Hermit can also represent isolation, which might be a better fit.

3. It is an odd title and it makes the book sound more romantic than it is. In googling, I found that it is also the title of a Wordsworth poem, maybe there is a connection there? Maybe it just should have been called “Birth” since I didn’t see really the connection between the Semmelweiss/the Moon and the Michael /the Hermit narratives to the present day/the Empress and futuristic/the Tower narratives. I thought that in the Michael / Hermit story line, it was more about creative birth than actual childbearing.

1. I found the Semmelweis portion of the narrative the most interesting only because it didn't irritate me as much as the other portions.

2. What Ruth said. (Actually that's cheating because I totally couldn't even answer that question. I had to give the book back to the library and to be honest, I'd not noticed or analyzed the section headings at all. I couldn't even remember what they were.) And Ruth, I'm impressed by your research and analysis. It makes sense to me.

3. I don't think the title was a good choice because I didn't see much "love", really. Having said that, I couldn't come up with an alternative that would tie all of the narratives together better than "Birth", like Ruth said. It sort of seems like Kavenna wrote four distinct short stories that she threw into a book and tied them loosely together with a title. Now that I've got the concept of the title connection in my head, I can sort of see some thread there, but in reality I found the characters bland and annoying, except for Semmelweis who had somewhat of an excuse for his behavior. The "love" part was lacking, both in the characters and my feelings for them.

Someone's got to be first! Thanks for taking one for the team.
You are SPECTACULAR for researching both the tarot cards/headings and the Wordsworth poem. This is why I was never any good in English lit classes--I noticed the headings, but didn't really think how to chase down what they meant. (Or care, really. I always just want to get to and then rush through the reading without stopping to consider things like symbolism.) You have made my reading experience of this title richer.
I too liked the dystopian part, although I know what you mean about the corrections. I do feel like that was done by design--to point out how powerful words and perceptions are. They wanted to make the point that the words or titles (fathers or mothers) didn't matter, but the more relentless their corrections, the more it became clear they DID matter, or so it seemed to me. I too like dystopias; I still want to read 1984.
I still don't know how I feel about the title. I'm going to see what others say.

I'm sorry the title was irritating--at least, I hope it was irritating in a thought-provoking way. For whatever reason I think the Herr S. portions were my least favorite, although I find Semmelweis very interesting. But I was expecting a baby when I read this the first time so my attraction to Brigid's story was probably at least partially explained by that.
Do you think there's any way the author could have more cohesively related the sections for them to make sense for you? Is it important to you to like main characters, or at least feel they aren't bland? I don't know that I connected to any of the characters here, and I really like a good character read, so I'm wondering why this book appealed to me so much. If I'd read it at a different point I might have had something closer to your reaction, I think.

Greta, you didn’t feel any of the love in the Bridget/Empress part? I thought it was really well written, but as you justly pointed out, very short; not the full story. I thought that Kavenna did a good job describing Bridget’s love for her son and her worries and guilt feelings about how they boy would feel when the new baby had come and she wouldn’t be able to give him the attention he was used to. I don’t have kids, but that all seemed very real to me.

I am also really curious about the birth bit in the Bridget/Empress story line. I imagine the experience is unique to every mother, but I was wondering if any of the readers who had children would weigh in on that. Was it comparable to what you experienced or not even close?

CR, as I mentioned, I am a non-fiction fan. And I really dislike Sci-Fi, so that one part of the book wasn't for me and the correction bit made me like it even less. I do see your point, though, in that it was clear that they were trying to control perceptions of things through changing words and incessantly correcting the speaker. The Herr S. part was interesting because he was a bit of a mystery (having not read the Nuland book first) and it was all written in a way that made what was happening to him and why seem unclear. I was pulled along waiting to find out. When I do read fiction, I want to like the main character or at least be able to see things from their perspective. I have very little tolerance for neurotic characters and I felt that Bridget's "love" was just that. The author actually did a very good job of conveying that typically British over-protective mothering guilt thing I see here all the time. Maybe that's why I didn't enjoy wallowing in it in the book. As for the birth bit, I have three children and I would have to say that the way she described it was quite accurate but she went on a bit too long about it. And Michael had some serious issues. :-)

Kavenna did actually tie the narrative together through the links between the characters (my foggy memory keeps me from articulating exactly what they were) over time, now that I think about it. So I guess there was a cohesiveness to the different narratives which I did appreciate. It was the title that was a bit of a disconnect.

I'm hiding in my office, trying to post in a more timely manner...

1. I liked the idea of the future portion, but I find it hard to believe in a society where Westerners give up their personal liberties for the "benefit of the species". Most of the people I know would say, "F*** the species, don't tell me what to do." And I see more of that in the younger generations. I also liked Brigid, until labor started and then I just wanted to shake her. Why would anyone want to have babies outside of a hospital? Maybe because I work in a NICU I'm biased, but I would want technology available for every contingency. (Full disclosure: I don't have kids, or plan to have kids.)

2. I immediately recognized the section titles as the major arcana of the tarot and also double-checked their significance, as it has been a long time since I tried to study tarot. I also raise my hat to Ruthiella for the poem connection. Will have to look that up.

3. I didn't like the title. I see that each character is laboring to produce something, but Semmelweis didn't do it for love, but as a profession, or maybe even a calling - still not love. Likewise Michael isn't writing out of love, maybe compulsion.

Overall I thought the book was okay, but that Kavenna kind of overextended herself. She never was able (in my opinion) to pull all the threads together into one cohesive tapestry. And this may not be the place for the following comment, but I really thought that having the future characters be descendents of Brigid was clumsy and totally unnecessary.

Marmota, I agree, with your last comment. I also did not like it when the characters in the futuristic storyline turned out to be descendents of Bridget. I also didn't like the naming of all the charachters (Birgit, Bridget and Brigitta). It was too heavy handed for me; As if Kavenna didn't trust the reader to get something more subtle.

Greta, if I had kids, I would be like Bridget. I was born feeling guilty! Thank you for giving me insight on the birth bit / realism. I agree, it went on perhaps to long. But again, I think that might be what Kavenna was aiming for...to make the reader feel what Bridget felt...that it would never end.

This is funny... I just said I liked the fact that she tied it together, but I agree with both of you that she did it in such a blatant way it came across as forced and a bit insulting. Maybe I was giving her credit for trying to weave the tapestry but it turned out to be a bit of a tatty one. I wish I still had a hold of the book so I could go back and review exactly what it was about it that exasperated me. I didn't hate the book but I didn't really like it either.

I enjoyed TBOL, maybe because of all the very different but connectable story lines, even if the connections are only guessed at? I thought Kavenna very creative. I was most looking forward to the SciFi part but it didn't really work for me. I liked the writer part, all his angst at publishing and having to promote his work and worrying about the critics.
Thank you Ruthiella for pointing out the Tarot references - it didn't even register with me that the chapters had titles until I was flipping back through my notes. (I rarely pay attn to chapter titles nor chapter start/finishes, length.)
The title seems to sentimental and I don't think the book is (sentimental). I have read a review that the connecting story line is MOTHERHOOD; thus the writer and his needing to get back to see his mother - which I also didn't think worked for me but seemed more an excuse to get away from the parties. I also felt confused why Bridget wasn't more appreciative of her own mother and felt her a nuisance rather than a help. Even if I wasn't close to my mom, I would have wanted her there at that time!
I also don't have nor plan on having kids. That said, I am not against women who want to birth at home. And I don't quite get why so many people get emotionally upset when they hear women wanting that experience and even think at-home births be against the law. (I have such a friend.) If not at risk, go for it. Then again, most hospitals seem now to have more comfortable birthing centers.
So maybe the theme was the birthing experience particular to women and the sci fi piece to be a contrast from what is 'natural'. And how the establishment can interfere? ie, Vienna doctors in the 1800's. I don't know.
I liked the book more than this comment suggests. It is very thought-provoking.
Question, what WAS the switching of the ultimate birth gender in the scifi part trying to suggest? I thought this odd and abrupt and confusing.

Thanks for the insight re: the birthing parts too (from what I've heard from other women the real thing also goes on too long! :) ). I didn't have any choice in the matter--an issue meant that we had to have a scheduled c-section--but I must say Brigid's not wanting to have one of those and her resignation to it really resonated with me, so I had no reason to doubt her descriptions of labor pains. I really wanted to try the "natural way" but after reading this--man. Sounds like a lot of work, at the very least.
I must admit I really did like Brigid--I thought the tension between her mom and her was well done, and sometimes I wonder how much guilt mothers put on themselves about the kids, and how much they feel from society.

you are a champ, hiding out and posting! Thanks for the dedication.
I think you're probably right in your assessments of Westerners and doing things for the greater good--but I still found the future part believable. For one thing, I think a lot of shit goes down so incrementally that we don't notice--I'm thinking all the CCTV cameras in London, our country's taking part in several wars that lots of us citizens didn't really "vote" for--so I could see us working around to that point, frankly.
I'm not much of an earth mother but I can totally understand wanting to give birth at home. If you work in one you might feel differently, but hospitals are just icky. For me personally it's because I have issues with most doctors--by and large I really dislike them as professionals and sometimes as people, but yet, I most likely owe them my life and my baby's life for our safe delivery. That does not help matters--no one likes to feel beholden to people they don't like. It's complex. But if I could figure out a way to give birth without doctors around, I surely would. Does that provide any insight? I appreciated yours, especially from the NICU point of view.
I didn't like the title either, particularly, but really can't think of a different one.
I'm kind of a lazy fiction reader, so I didn't mind the way Kavenna tied the stories together. Sometimes I like the obvious ending so the future people being Brigid's descendents didn't bother me. So interesting that it did bother several others! I'm rusty on reading fiction so it's great to hear others' opinions.

I also thought Kavenna might be going for making the reader actually feel pain--you know how when you're hurting every second feels like at least ten minutes? I thought she really got that sense across.

It's been a while since I read it, but I really enjoyed Kavenna's novel "Inglorious." You may not be up for another book by her, but I wonder what you'd think of that one. But maybe you wouldn't like the main character in that one, either--
What type of fiction/authors do you normally read, if I may ask?

I really liked the novel too. Maybe because I just really like Kavenna. But I didn't mind at all how the sections were/weren't tied together. I remember being a little impatient through the Herr S parts, but by and large I found this a thoughtful and enjoyable fiction read.
Re: your question about home births and people's opinions--I think it's just a really heartfelt area. People have lots of very strongly held opinions about pregnancy, birth, and parenting, I've noticed, and they are NOT afraid to share. Somehow "live and let live" is not a phrase in vogue when it comes to motherhood.

Greta could have written my comments. I came close to despising this book. Irritating and unsympathetic characters. I would never have finished it if not for this discussion. I don't like to criticize unconstructively, but I just have nothing to say. Clearly, I was not in the right frame of mind to give this book a fair chance.

I felt there was a lot of endless repetition, not only in the dystopian part where it was most blatant, but in every section of the book. I often felt like I was reading something I had read just a few pages earlier and found myself thinking, "Yes, we know, just get on it with it already."

Ruthiella, it's been many years, but not much of what Bridget experienced seemed familiar to me at all (everyone's mileage varies, of course, and I'm sure a lot depends on the practices of one's doctor/midwife and the birthing facility). The scraps of paper keeping track of contractions--yes. The "I don't want to do that"--yes. She had much more intervention in both of her labors than I did. And her pain seemed so constant and dramatic, which did not ring true for me--which is not to say there isn't a lot of pain. Of course, she had complications and everyone's different. [Look at me, being so careful not to seem judgmental about the birth story of a fictional character!] And her near constant worrying about how her son was doing, and whether he had a good dinner? Uh-uh. Labor has a way of profoundly focusing one's attention; I doubt I gave my much-loved daughter a second thought while I was having my son.

No offense meant if you are a doctor or health professional, of course. I don't get along with lots of people, not just doctors. :) And I've got lots of reasons to be grateful to health care workers, so I should get a better attitude.

Kathy, you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the "endless repetition". That's exactly how I felt.

CR, it's hard to pinpoint what type of fiction I normally read. Off the top of my head I'd say I mostly enjoy...uh, let me go back to goodreads and look at my shelf. Hmmm. Still hard to say. The Classics like Rebecca or Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The ones written by authors (or translators) who have an excellent command of the English language like The Count of Monte Cristo. Some historical fiction like Pillars of the Earth. Books with quirky or strong characters. I'll have a look at Inglorious. I guess I don't have much patience for whiners or neurotics either in real life or in fiction. Especially in fiction where my attention is optional. :-) It's interesting that people have such strong opinions about how other people should give birth.

I had a middling reaction to this book. I didn't like the title either (thought it was too sentimental as well). I read it a bit Freudian I think, as I saw the link between all the books as the power that various women can hold in our lives. For Semmelweis it was the one woman that haunted him; for Michael I believed that is own mother's censure very much shaped the person and the writer that he became. I saw a comment above criticizing Bridgit for her attitude towards her mother, but I empahtize I love my mom but she bugs me like no other and while I think I would want her around when I get around to having kids she will probably drive me up the wall. I loved this storyline the most - I think I empathized with many of the issues that the modern woman was dealing with, including balancing modern expectations for mothers and our own desires. Finally, I did enjoy the dystopian portion as well. It was a larger look at how women and our power to procreate can affect a larger society - as demonstrated by the complete love that all the prisoners showed. The stories were perhaps a bit clunky in their connections, but the book still struck a chord with me and I enjoyed reading it. Sorry I'm a bit late in posting and thanks for the suggestion.

Greta, I loved Rebecca and Tess and hope to try Count of Monte Cristo someday, but had to put down Pillars and I gag every time I hear someone mention how awesome it is (sorry). May I recommend Katherine Dunn's GEEK LOVE if you like quirky?) But I didn't notice any endless repetition in this! It's so interesting what people like/notice/dislike, etc. Book club discussions are always so much better when no one agrees. :)
I would have loved to try having a baby, experiencing the wonder of creation, etc, blahblahblah. In fact, I had a doctor tell me I had "birthin' hips" but I told him, 'As an engineer, I wouldn't mind the baby construction experience, but wasn't up for the 18 years that would follow.' I did offer myself as a surrogate to my sister-in-law but she turned me down. Probably would have been weird. She ended up having her very own.

I love the classics too. Have you read any Anthony Trollope? Totally different than what we've been discussing, and not like Thomas Hardy at all, but still very interesting.
Thanks for answering my fiction question. As stated, I'm kind of rusty on fiction so it's fun to chat it over.

I've been so interested by the wide range of responses to this book. Some liked it, a lot disliked it, and now you're feeling middling.
I empathized with the modern woman the most too, I'll admit. And it was fun to read the Guardian article that Ruthiella cited in another post (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/15/joanna-kavenna-birth-of-love) about Kavenna's own feeling about women and work and kids and balancing.
I'm still trying to think of what might have made a better title, since it really seems to have put people off.
No worries on commenting later--I never close the comments because I know sometimes people just don't have the time to read/comment right at the same moment everyone else is doing so.

CR -

I am NOT a doctor, but I work with them and quite a few of them are arrogant and egotistical and get caught up in the cogs of the modern medical establishment which can lead to the patient becoming an afterthought. So, I understand your avoidance of hospitals and doctors (which is not uncommon). Basically this is a very long way of saying 'no offense taken'. :)

Don't we women have enough oppression regarding our various orifices right now? I wouldn't move to Kansas, for instance, if you paid me a LOT of money.

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