My Notorious Life was an obvious book for me to love -- or to hate.
Much historical fiction feels contrived to me. An author takes a period of history, writes a piece of fiction, often a romance or family saga, and grafts the two together. I often see the scaffolding too much.
I'm particularly sensitive to this when the subject matter is important to me. This book qualified on so many levels -- women, abortion, New York City. If anything had felt inauthentic to me, I couldn't have read it.
I am happy to report that I loved it.
Kate Manning seamlessly blends a dramatic story with historical people and events. Based on the life of a woman who was known as Madame Restell, My Notorious Life tells the story of a child of extreme poverty who rises to fame and fortune, and who may be thrown back into poverty, and into prison -- not without several twists and turns, the outcome of which is never certain. Manning's Madame Restell is a very compelling hero -- daring and courageous, and also deeply principled and compassionate.
Manning brings the reader into late 19th Century New York City, a world of extreme income inequality, where women have little control over their reproductive lives. In other words, a world with all too many parallels to our own. But there are striking differences, too. We can see the progress our society has made -- and the consequences of that progress being reversed and undone. When women are unable to control their reproduction, they suffer, children suffer, and society suffers.
Manning also manages to pull off something that must be incredibly difficult, given how rarely it is achieved. She weaves all the issues -- poverty, class, the treatment of children, women's autonomy, pregnancy, childbirth, abortion -- into a dramatic story with a great plot and several subplots. There are no soapboxes, no billboards. The lessons are gleaned through story.
On our recent trip to Powell's City of Books in Portland, I stumbled on* a title that practically leapt out at me: Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright. I immediately put a copy in my basket, wondering how I had not heard of it before -- not realizing that it was published only last month. I will be reading it and writing about it soon.
* I was hunting for Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences (2010) by Cordelia Fine. I found that book, Madame Restell, and The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service (1995) by Laura Kaplan. I hope to read all three this year.
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