“After Birth,” by Elisa Albert, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pages, $23
Elisa Albert’s latest book, “After Birth,” is about women, and women’s issues, and women’s bodies, and women’s complaints. It’s catnip for the woman who’s been dying of boredom in the age of Walter White and Don Draper - those flawed yet rarified male anti-heroes.
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The book’s first-person narrator, Ari (short for Ariella), a new mother after a disastrous C-section, has a scathing tongue and a heart laden with self-pity. She is deeply unpleasant, obsessed with the shortcomings of others, and angry about being a woman in today’s day and age.
“After Birth” is a 21st-century tragicomedy of manners for the over-educated, mostly Jewish New York set, with the navel-gazing focused on Ari’s C-section scar. The book screams with energy and sparkles with wit. It is light on plot and heavy on character.
Ari’s son, Walker, is now 1, the product of surgery that left his mother with nightmares, an unwritten dissertation, and some post-partum depression.
She lives with her professor-husband Paul (not a Jew; an aunt sent a letter with a “lot of disappointed and history and our people and suffered enough”) in an upstate college town, thanks to a decision made when Ari was six months pregnant. As she quite charmingly puts it, “We thought: okay, yeah, go fuck yourself, Brooklyn!”
But Ari is lonely. “I get inexplicably mad at Paul,” she explains, “like how could you do this to me, make me this desperate isolated hausfrau scrounging for simpaticos in this backwater shitbox?”
Not to worry. The magnificent Mina Morris, formerly of the ‘90s girl band The Misogynists (“You don’t know the Misyogynists?” Ari asks Paul incredulously. “’Eat Me While I Decide’? ‘Can’t Stop Wanting’? ‘Who the Fuck Are You’?”), and now extremely pregnant, takes up residence next door and replaces the unsatisfying women Ari has been forced to tool around with hitherto.
Will Mina, like every other woman in Ari’s life, disappoint and abandon her? Or will this friendship defy all odds and prove to be the real deal?
“After Birth” lays bare one of the secrets of growing older, namely that the true fantasy of a woman no longer in her twenties is not for a man, but for a good friend. Safely married, Ari longs for female companionship. Perhaps fittingly, I read large portions of “After Birth” aloud to a breastfeeding bestie on a cold afternoon. This turned out to have a pleasant irony, for “After Birth” is first and foremost about the failures of women to take care of each other before, during and after childbirth.
These failures are particular to Ari’s life circumstances. Yet the force of Albert’s prose seems to generalize them, to encompass all women in a way that seems patriarchal - or at least in concert with the beliefs of those who enjoy saying things like “crazy bitches.”
Sharp critiques, stereotypical complaints
Ari is angry, and the book is full of passages of unbridled rage at the way society treats its mothers. But mostly, Ari is angry at the host of women who failed to tell her the truth about motherhood, C-sections and breastfeeding.
She views the list of women who parade through her life, only to drop out or be dropped, as predictably as rainfall, through a narrow lens of how they look and how they relate to men and babies. This ultimately undercuts the narrative’s claim to speak truth to power, as brilliant critiques are often followed by deeply ungenerous portrayals of other women, often on the same page.
Take, for instance, a party where Ari notes about a couple in their fifties with no kids, “Fairly badass on the one hand not to do this main thing we’re forever exhorted to do, say no thanks, decline to buy an embryo from some God complex in a lab coat, decline to hire a hooker to cook it up. But the too-late-ness, on the other hand, the vanished possibility. The empty space. A lot to live with.” Ari then turns directly from this deeply incisive analysis to notice “the French theory bitch in Kabuki makeup.”
Would the unkind, competitive person who is so harsh on the “French theory bitch” really be the one to notice the horrible double-bind of motherhood? Would the person compassionate enough to point out all the flaws in how motherhood is regarded by society also note that “Cat’s hair is dyed and shellacked a deep awful magenta; Betsy’s panty lines have panty lines. In the kitchen the French-theory bitch with the Kabuki face teeters on idiot spike-heel contraptions resembling staplers. Someone should offer her bunions a glass of wine”?
Humorous, yes. But would this character also so acutely and movingly notice that “people like to pretend that small children and animals aren’t sentient, so as to more easily perpetrate horrible crimes against them”?
Albert insightfully draws the conclusion that a character with Ari’s mother - cold, mean, sick, then dead - would zealously covet desire, attention and jealousy, noting, for example, that “I’ve always had a hard time differentiating between people who hate me and people who want to fuck me. Usually because, I finally realized, there’s often a great deal of overlap.” A woman with Ari’s mother would certainly see women as black or white, goddess or dirtbag, good mommy or bad mommy, and would interpret any conflict with men as inherently sexual in nature.
A character study of such a cruel and competitive person whose absent mother causes her to seek a mother in every woman she meets, and compete with other potential surrogate daughters, who views all men through a fuzzy and forgiving lens, would indeed be a delicious book. But it would require doing away with the deeper insights the book has on offer. When a character is possessed so mercilessly by a symptom and then breaks through her myopia to speak truth, it rings a false note. It’s also confusing. How far does the truth extend? Hopefully not to the French theory bitch’s bunions.
Ari’s sharp critiques bleed together with the kind of competitive complaining that women are often stereotyped for. The argument that women are bitches because of the way patriarchal society forces them to compete hovers just beyond the scope of “After Birth,” its protagonist too fully realized for the theory to stick.
For example, the power of the book’s perception that modern motherhood is a series of consumerist feats wanes when Ari describes the persnickety materialism of the specific mothers in a group she attends, and further still when Ari’s militant stance toward breastfeeding goes unquestioned.
In other words, the book betrays itself, not because it is badly written but precisely because it is so well-written, so rife with gorgeous prose and insight, that Albert’s compassionate critique of society’s treatment of mothers seems just slightly out of Ari’s reach. True insight doesn’t come from an acerbic tongue but from the willingness to step outside one’s own suffering and experience someone else’s; otherwise, it’s not truth but self-pity or worse, self-regard.
Yet compassion for others is not a practice Ari holds near or dear, and while many unlikable characters are wellsprings of their author’s insight, the kind of insight Albert has uncovered is one born of qualities Ari simply doesn’t have - though Albert clearly does, in spades.
Despite the quibble with the book’s few false notes, “After Birth” is an excellent read and an important step in the struggle for female protagonists who are both compelling and unlikable.
Albert is supreme on upper-crust New York Jewish culture. Of the pastimes of Ari’s father and stepmother, she enumerates “grossly overdressing for rousing High Holiday sermons in which they are beseeched to solve world Jewry’s problems, past and present, by sending money to Israel and voting Republican if it comes down to it.”
One of the most charming set pieces in the book tells of Ari’s stepmother, who runs an organization that promotes Jewish books “about Jewish mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, reclaiming Yiddish, moving to Israel. Bread-and-butter books about the one and only genocide, my favorite of which is, I kid you not even a little, `The Holocaust Survivor’s Cookbook.’”
Other books promoted by this organization are “literary doorstops in which unlikely entities - bowling, Zionism - are united in metaphor. Post-apocalyptic sagas in which there is Only! One! Jew! Left! In! The! World!”
It’s this kind of humor and writing that make “After Birth” a delight, even when its subject matter is so dark.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.