Book Review: “The Long Answer,” by Anna Hogeland

THE LONG ANSWER, by Anna Hogeland


The question keeping many women awake at night right now is whether our government will revoke or uphold our right to control and choose our reproductive destinies. For 50 years the law has recognized women’s bodies as private, and women’s lives as our own, and now the right to choose our own fate is endangered. What’s wrong with this? That’s the question this debut novel poses.

The “long answer,” it turns out, is made up of a vast range of complex realities for women with reproductive systems: childbirth, complications of childbirth, miscarriage, D&E, stillbirth, abortion, egg donation, fertility treatments, pregnancy, complications of pregnancy, infertility. This book addresses all those experiences, truly a breathtaking roundup of the many ways that women carry and lose babies and pregnancies, so many possible and impossible choices to be made, so many capitulations and coercions to be endured. All the narratives in the novel make clear that the only thing that makes any of it bearable is the agency each woman can claim.

The two women at the heart of the book are sisters, but they aren’t close. The novel starts with a phone call between a woman named Anna and her older sister, Margot, who discloses that she’s miscarried her second child (she has a healthy toddler son); Anna hadn’t known her sister was even pregnant. But Anna is newly pregnant with her first child, so their conversation is clipped and curt. The sisters are unable to find common ground until they begin discussing the intimate details of a third woman, Elizabeth, extensive back story we get — in lieu of Anna’s and Margot’s.

This story-within-a-story device occurs three times: although Anna, Margot and their mother are ostensibly the main characters, they recede and reveal very little of themselves. Instead, we hear in great detail about the lives of three other women — Elizabeth, Corrie and Marisol — as narrated by Anna. (The author is a therapist, and reading this book is not unlike eavesdropping on someone else’s session). These nested stories are where readers find women of color, bisexuality, histories of abuse and neglect, and life-defining poverty. Each of these women appears, spills it all and disappears from Anna’s life.

Anna is a careful observer of other women — we know this because in yoga class she notices that Corrie’s toenails are unpainted and her yoga clothes are cheap. But these details feel a bit cheap themselves. Corrie is impoverished and her story is appalling and sad, but her problems are never resolved or explored because she gets only a one-episode arc. Does her story matter or not? With women living under the specter of disappearing reproductive rights — yes, her story matters: It is worth hearing and reading. From the perspective of the main character, Corrie’s is one of many stories Anna uses to sort and make meaning of her own life.

Or, perhaps, to make sense of all of our lives. Anna says as much: “I needed stories like this now. I needed them like I needed water and salt, to tell me what was possible in the course of a life.” I am right there with her, ravenous for women’s accounts, for our histories, portraits and perspectives. Right now these stories are crucial. I will listen to them all, even if this particular novel reads as unsettlingly uncertain about whose story it is — the protagonist’s or the supporting characters’. Whether or not this book brings together their voices harmoniously, it does clarify and reiterate that precious little stands between women and reproductive bondage, and our stories — these lived narratives overheard, whispered, written into novels — continue to show that we have lives worth living , that women are viable human beings.

Brenda Shaughnessy is the author, most recently, of “The Octopus Museum.” She has two new books, “Liquid Flesh: New and Selected Poems” and “Tanya,” forthcoming.

THE LONG ANSWER, by Anna Hogeland | 304 pp. | Riverhead Books | $26

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