Book Review: The Making of Her
With the country under turmoil after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, historical novels about women facing crisis pregnancies have more meaning and resonance than ever before. While The Making of Her, Irish-Australian author Bernadette Jiwa’s debut novel, has some issues, it’s a mesmerizing look at how a woman’s lack of choice reverberates over her entire life.
In 1960s Dublin, Joan is the eldest daughter of an alcoholic dock worker, a man so weak that he gave up his younger children when his wife died in childbirth. Working in a factory and keeping house, Joan’s life has little sunshine until she spots a cute bike messenger. After they meet and flirt, Joan is stunned to learn that Martin is the scion of one of the most successful business owners in the city. Martin’s overbearing mother disapproves of the relationship, but the young couple continues to meet in secret until the inevitable happens…
In 1996, Joan and Martin have been unhappily married for 30 years. They still live with his mother, and their adult daughter, Carmel, helps out in the business. When the daughter they gave up for adoption finally contacts Joan, Martin doesn’t want her to respond due to fear for their reputation. But Joan has missed this girl every day since she gave her up. What will she do?
While the prose was often unsophisticated, this story drew me right in. It has a lot of classic soap opera beats, and I’ve always loved a good soap opera. The scenes in 1960s Dublin were especially compelling; Call The Midwife from the hardscrabble woman’s point-of-view. Jiwa demonstrates how sexism, classism, and religion combine to keep a poor young woman firmly in her station. Even when she manages to escape her old neighborhood, she’s still judged for it.
The novel is written in third person, from the points-of-view of Joan and her two daughters. While each of these women comes across as three-dimensional, Martin and his mother are opaque. Martin’s love for his younger daughter makes his decision to ignore his older one a mystery that the writer never really solves. And his mother never has a single human moment in the entire book. Still, it’s good soap opera and Jiwa delivers the emotional experience the reader wants.
The past, as the saying goes, is prologue, and as the nation reacts to women losing their bodily autonomy, books like The Making of Her are an important reminder of what’s at stake. Without options, an unplanned pregnancy can derail a woman’s entire life, or even end it. And that’s exactly what many forced-birth supporters want.
Thanks to Dutton for the book in exchange for an honest review.