After Birth

By Elisa Albert

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Elisa Albert, author of  the novel, The Book Of Dahlia,  and How This Night Is Different, a collection of short stories, has written for NPR, Tin House, Commentary, Salon and the Rumpus. Albert comes from Los Angeles, but moved to the East Coast, graduated from Brandeis University and now lives in upstate New York with her family. She holds a MFA from Columbia University and is an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts.

What is this book about?

Motherhood, as any honest mother would tell you if you promised her total anonymity, is not all adorable onesies and cuddling with a precious little baby. Elisa Albert makes this very clear in After Birth, her impressively candid novel about the overwhelming changes that envelope her main character, Ari, a young wife overwhelmed by trying to recover from an unplanned C-section, meet the normal but draining demands of her infant son, Walker, deal with her professor husband’s academic milieu, connect with local women, survive  a brutal winter and find a friend, a real, nurturing friend, who might help her make sense of her new and often frightening circumstances. Then Mina – also a feminist and about to give birth — comes to town, and Ari seems to have found that longed-for companion.  This is a novel with a lead character who will be off-putting to some, but refreshingly honest to others.

Why you’ll like it:

Elisa Albert is not known for pulling punches or creating easy-to-love characters, but all is forgiven when you immerse yourself in one of her fierce stories. Her writing voice is brutally funny, with equal emphasis on the bitter frankness and the comical.

Her debut collection of short stories, “Why This Night Is Different,” drew raves from many reviewers but disturbed some who found them irreverent. One of its stories stars a young woman with a raging yeast infection trying to introduce her non-Jewish boyfriend to her quarrelsome family at a Passover seder. Another ends with its narrator, an unhappy young wife, curled in a fetal position in a synagogue restroom, contemplating her life. But, Albert told me in a 2006 interview for The Courant, “That’s not me on the floor of that bathroom, in the worst imaginable position. I like to reach for the brutal, unflattering portrayal. Readers need to keep in mind that “my characters aren’t me,” she says. “The further away you are, the easier it is to write.”

She attempted the brutal/comical straddle in The Book of Dahlia, in which the title character is dying of brain cancer, with less success: Dahlia was more acerbic than many readers and reviewers could handle. But in After Birth, she succeeds: Ari has a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue, but she speaks the truth about the hormonal tsunami of feelings that can turn the supposed idyll of motherhood into an unexpected field of battle.

What others are saying:

“Coarse and poetic and funny as hell, full of the hard truths no one tells you beforehand, including just that: No one tells you the truth,” says Ellen Akins in The Star Tribune.

“As they bond, the women deliver themselves (if you will) of profane, cathartic, wickedly funny arias of anger about the shock of their experience. After Birth is complaint literature in the distinguished tradition of Philip Roth,” says Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal.

In The New York Times Book Review, Merritt Tierce writes: “…brilliant…After Birth cuts open the body of literature on mothering, birth, feminism, female friendship, female hateship…and wrenches out something so new we barely recognize it. Wet, red, slimy, alive: a truth baby…Its language is not only the scalpel but the flesh—it hurts, in both senses. It’s obscene, reckless, vicious, hilarious and above all real. Albert has inherited the house Grace Paley built, with its narrow doorways just wide enough for wit and tragedy and blistering, exasperated love…Paley found the seam where the important and the madcap are stitched together on the underside of life, and here is Albert working that same territory. Her Ari is bold enough to put motherhood up on a pedestal because its sanctity is as undeniable as it is dangerous. But she also wants to be sure you know the pedestal is made of excrement and tears and vomit and breast milk and the very selves of a billion unknown women…After Birth…ought to be as essential as The Red Badge of Courage. Just because so much of mothering happens inside a house doesn’t mean it’s not a war: a battle for sovereignty over your heart, your mind, your life—and one you can’t bear for the other side to lose.“

“Albert says everything women think, but don’t say, unless they are speaking to their best friend. I laughed out loud. A lot. As a mother of two, I loved how she explored this time, after the birth of a first child, with bare-bulbed honesty and an acerbic wit that gave way to humor around nearly every turn. This is the first book I’ve read that does this after birth period justice, and I’ve already recommended it to new, as well as more established, mothers.” Says Michaela Carter of the Peregrine Book Company in Prescott, Ariz.

Publishers Weekly says: Albert applies a blistering tone to modern motherhood in this cri de coeur of a novel. Six-months-pregnant Ari couldn’t wait to leave Brooklyn for the faded glory of Utrecht, N.Y., and its affordable four-bedroom Italianate with her supportive professor husband, Paul, 15 years her senior. Now, Ari has one-year-old Walker, a C-section scar, and an unfinished dissertation in women’s studies. Faculty life isn’t the “deranged orgiastic laser show” she dreamed it would be. About the women in her C-section support group she says, “A chore, trying to talk to these women.” So Ari pins her hopes for friendship and connection on Mina Morris, former bass player for the Misogynists, a late-’80s all-girl band. Mina is now a poet who is subletting from Ari’s friends while they’re on sabbatical. Into this thinly plotted story, Albert interweaves insightful portraits of Ari’s extended family, childhood friends, and frenemies. Our sarcastic and self-aware heroine never spares us her anger, her epic takedowns (“It had an addictive flavor, hating her”), and her attempts to parse her own internalized misogyny. In lesser hands, Ari might be unlikable, but Albert imbues her with searing honesty and dark humor, and the result is a fascinating protagonist for this rich novel.”

When is it available?

This newborn book is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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