Book Club Reads Chris Bohjalian

First off, a brief confession about the April book club. We read “Fannie’s Last Supper” that month, and since I already reviewed it here, I gave myself a pass from writing up the meeting last month.

For the month of May, our designated host instructed us to read anything by the author Chris Bohjalian. Browsing the shelves at my local library, I very randomly picked out his work, “Midwives.”

I did not know that this particular book had been an Oprah Book Club pick. But after reading it, I can see why.

The setup is a dramatic one (especially if you’ve ever borne a child): an experienced midwife, trapped in a late winter storm in rural Vermont, with a laboring mother who just suffered a stroke. After the midwife, her assistant, and the mother’s husband all attempt to resuscitate the mother and don’t get a pulse or breath, the midwife takes the bold step of an emergency c-section to save the baby because the mother is believed to be dead.

I use the word “believed” because doubt is cast by the midwife’s assistant. She thinks the mother, while unconscious, was still alive when the c-section was performed, and died as a result of the emergency procedure and not from a stroke.

What’s interesting is how the story is told, which is from the perspective of this midwife’s daughter who was 14 at the time of the event – old enough to process some of what happened, and at the time she relates the tale, removed enough from the events to offer perspective for her readers. By the time she’s telling the tale, the young girl is now an Ob-Gyn, and her mother passed away from cancer. So the expertise and clinical understanding of our narrator is well established. But even though she is knowledgeable and a professional, she still retains some of the intrigue and speculation that naturally forms in a teenager’s mind as she relates key scenes that stand out in her memory.

The pace of the story never flags, and soon enough you find your heart beating a little faster and staying up way too late just to get to what you hope will be the breaking point. We learn the verdict, and we learn of a secret that the midwife’s daughter kept that could have changed the outcome of the case. If you are familiar with Bohjalian’s writing style, you almost expect there to be “the twist” that no reader should have seen coming. Taken as it’s printed on the page, though, the impact is undeniable.

As a woman who experienced birth in a hospital setting, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to deliver at home. Given the fact that our child’s head was too big to fit through “the chute” and necessitated intervention, I know I would not have been all that successful. I’m very thankful we all came through the process healthy, and also know that – despite the advances made in the practice of maternal and fetal medicine – outcomes still wind up very, very differently than expected sometimes. But don’t think there weren’t a few scenes in the book that played to some pretty deep fears of mine. Especially given the snowy state we live in for half the year, it seems.

Based on reviews from some of my fellow bookclubbers who read other works by this author, this guy would make for a nice summer read. After you slather on the sunscreen, of course.

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