Tuesday, February 17, 2015

book review: After Birth by Elisa Albert

The backstory: When I read the essay collection Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York last year, Elisa Albert's essay was among my favorites. When I heard her new novel, After Birth, was a feminist, foul-mouthed novel about childbirth and early motherhood, I knew I had to read it.

The basics: Ari, mom to 1-year-old Walker with her older, professorial husband, is still coming to terms with her traumatic c-section. She's unhappily living in fictional Utrecht, New York, a town near Albany, where Albert actually lives with her professorial husband and young son.

My thoughts: Ari describes herself as "a little obsessed with [Mina Morris], by which I mean a lot, which I guess is what obsessed means." After reading After Birth, I feel the same way about Ari. And perhaps about Albert herself. This books speaks to me in both expected and surprising ways. I have a six-month old son, and as an intelligent, feminist, academic realist, I have some complicated feelings about that. I don't always agree with Ari, which makes me love her even more. Her raw, clear, unabashed, honest, hilarious and often enraged voice is a thing of beauty: "He's an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists." (If you find that sentence more enraging or offensive than brilliant, stop reading. After Birth may not be for you.)

This novel is mostly Ari's perspective, but in the midst of her thoughts and feelings are beautiful observations and characterizations of others:
"Cat always is really appalled when other people don't share her precise cultural context. Crispin once described it that way. He meant it as an insult, I'm pretty sure, but it's one of the things I actually like about Cat: the way she wants us all on the same page, the way she seems sort of angry, betrayed, when it appears that we are not all on the same page....Cat needs you to know that she's seen things, knows people, has been in the right place at the right time even if she's currently in the wrong place all the time."
Albert packs so many punches into this novel. While Ari's sometimes stream of consciousness narrative at times reads like a manifesto, behind the scenes Albert is telling the other stories of Ari's life, including her grandmother's time in World War II concentration camps, her mother's death when Ari was a teenager, her childhood friendships, her college experiences, and all of the parts of her life, past and present, that aren't part of being a mother.

Admittedly, Elisa Abert and I are about the same age, and there are many pop cultural touchstones Ari and I share in this novel. These connections enhanced my connection with both Ari and this novel. Ari is someone I would be friends with. In fact, as I read, I was texting friends in Albany to find Elisa Albert and be her friend (Facebook tells me we have only one friend in common, and it's not even an Albany friend.) While part of what I love about this novel are the experiences, both similar and shared, I have with Ari,

Favorite passage: "Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who's gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice's, you'd best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else. Birthing and nursing and rocking and distracting and socializing and cooking and washing and gardening and mending: what's that compared with bullets whizzing overhead, dazzling destructive heroics, headlines, parties, glory, all that Martha Gellhorn stuff, all that Zelda Fitzgerald stuff, drugs and gutters and music and poetry pretty dresses more parties and fucking and fucking and parties?"

The verdict: After Birth is a tour de force. It's an ambitious, smart, confident, provocative, mesmerizing, intimate, brash novel. It is a novel about childbirth and the early days of motherhood, but it shouldn't be pigeonholed as any one thing. Albert's voice, and thus Ari's, is fierce, powerful, and brilliant, and I hope After Birth finds its audience and the acclaim it deserves.

Rating: 6 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: February 17, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy After Birth from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Elisa Albert's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. When you rate something 6 out of 5, I listen!

  2. I pay attention to your 6 out of 5 ratings!

    That last quote sounds a bit like that dilemma about literature - when men write, and when women write - chick lit, or at the least, not serious literature.
    Have you read Carol Shields' Unless?

  3. I can't wait to read this. I have a six week old and just finished Maggie Nelson The argonauts which really spoke to me as well.


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