Friday, March 25, 2011

book review: The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love: A NovelThe backstory: The Birth of Love is longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize.

The basics: "The year is 1865. In Vienna, Dr. Ignasz Semmelweiss has been hounded into an asylum by his medical peers, ridiculed for his claim that doctor's unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. In present-day London, Bridget Hughes juggles her young son, husband, and mother as she plans her home birth. Somewhere in 2153, in a world where humans are birthed and raise in breeding farms, Prisoner 730004 is on trial for concealing a pregnancy." (from the publisher)

My thoughts: Jackie warned me this novel had no plot, but I also knew both she and Andi loved it, so I was intrigued, as my taste tends to be somewhat similar to both of theirs. They are both mothers, so I was curious how I would react as a non-mother. The short of it: I loved it. I find it fascinating Kavenna chose to have two of her four narrators be men. For me, it was the perfect bridge to allow men and non-mothers entrance into a novel about childbirth. I found myself initially enjoying the experience of Brigid in 2009 London the most, but her story carried so much more meaning betwixt the historical and futuristic glimpses into motherhood. The soft tension between Brigid and her husband was poetic:
"Worst of all, Patrick kept praising her; he said he didn't know how she managed it all. He was trying to encourage her, though it made her feel alone, too, that her experience was untranslatable, obscure to him."
There were times Kavenna went (intentionally) meta, and I loved it:
"Men are unlikely to read a book about childbirth. It's unfortunate, but there's not much to be done. Women just might, but they'll be put off by your obscure doctor. And the title, too--the title is rather awkward." But he didn't want to change the title. "It sounds like a dreary symbolist novel," said Sally. "And this rambling narrator, who seems mad himself. It's as if you want to talk about everything, in one book. You can't talk about everything in one book. It's boring and it bores the reader."
This passage, in reference to the male novelist who has just written a historical novel about Semmelweiss delighted me. Initially, I was surprised by the fourth storyline not mentioned in the summary, but I quickly grew to love this stand-in for the author herself.  As I sat in my new reading nook while Mr. Nomadreader sat on the couch playing video games, I compulsively read passages to him I thought he would enjoy. Ironically, I think he would like this book as much if not more than I did because of his love of both science and its history.

The meta continues: "It's a good novel, I'm not saying it isn't a good novel, but it has no market." I admit, a novel about childbirth did not initially grab me, but the idea of a novel about childbirth in 1865, 2009 and 2153 moved this novel near the top of my Orange Prize reading list. It's a brilliant premise, but it's true there's not much plot. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but I am recommending it to quite a few friends.

Favorite passage: The appropriately summative: "Pregnancy was an exercise in optimism; having children was an eager assertion of optimism against all the dangers inherent in life, the tragedy that lurked constantly, at the edge of joy."

The verdict: The Birth of Love is a riveting examination of childbirth, mothering and humanity throughout history. It's scope is impressive. It was compulsively readable, fascinating and thought provoking.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: April 13, 2010
Source: I bought it for my Kindle.

Treat yourself! Buy The Birth of Love in paperback from an independent bookstore, The Book Depository, or Amazon. It's also available for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!


  1. Regardless of lack of plot, this looks just fantastic. I love that it combines the past, present, and future, too. I'm not sure about all of the books longlisted for the Orange Prize this year, but this particular one looks like it belongs on my wishlist!

  2. This was one of the titles that I was most looking forward to reading. The passage you included as your favorite really speaks volumes. I'm really hoping I can find a copy soon.

  3. Wow the premise sounds kinda weird so I am impressed to see that it totally works!

  4. The future part intrigues me, and the story, which hinges on motherhood and childbirth, is very much up my alley. I always enjoy reading Orange Prize longlist, and this one will not be missed.

    In what aspect is this book highly literary? I would think the narratives over three time periods provide lots of room for a story.

  5. I'm not a reader concerned about plot. I love character-driven novels, or even idea-driven ones.

    I'm intrigued by the three time periods used, and if the writing is good, this might be worth a look.

    Good point about using men and non-mothers, to draw a wider audience.

    I'm not an Orange Prize enthusiast like you, but I'll take recommendations! :)

  6. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed this one too! I was a bit worried that it wouldn't appeal as much to those that didn't have children, but it sounds as though you enjoyed it just as much. I really hope that this makes the Orange shortlist.

  7. So happy to see you loved this one! I can't wait to get my hands on a copy and read it (and I am especially encouraged because, like you, I am not a I wondered how this one might be for me).

  8. I have to add this to my list, I think this sounds fasinating and lack of plot is no issue with me.

  9. Sounds like a good book! I just read a nonfiction book that mentioned Semmelweiss and his hand-washing initiative.

  10. Thanks for sharing! I will have to find a copy. =)

  11. YAYYY! Yay yay! I'm so glad you liked this one, and I think the quote you chose about pregnancy being an act of optimism -- awesome!!! One of my favorites as well.

    Great review!

  12. Glad that this book is so good! I can't wait to check it out!

  13. I like the sound of this one a lot Carrie. I put it on my wish list a while back. Nice review.

  14. I usually like a plot, but when there is clearly so much to hold the interest I can live without it. I'm intrigued, and will definitely be placing an order.

  15. Thanks for writing such a detailed review of this book. I haven't seen much written about it, so this was really helpful. Of all the books on the Orange Prize list, this one looks particularly unique. Definitely one of my must-reads for the year.

  16. The fact that this novel has no plot, yet you really enjoyed it says something. I've had it on my shelf for awhile, I need to move it up in the TBR!

  17. We marked many of the same passages in this one, although you've quoted more than I did here. I found it a wholly enjoyable read but I did pick it up and put it down, so it may have lost some of its overall effect for me with that in mind. Nonetheless, it's one that I can imagine recommending rather often.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!