The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

The Secrets of MidwivesThe Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really loved this book, which tells the story of three distinct women-grandmother Floss, mother Grace, and daughter Neva-who are all midwives, who all love each other deeply, and who all sometimes drive each other crazy.
What I love about it:
Author Sally Hepworth writes with respect, awe, and warmth for women who are pregnant, giving birth, and supporting other women.
Hepworth clearly has done a lot of research about the state of present-day midwifery in the United States, as well as how it has been regulated and practiced during the past 50 years.
The Secrets of Midwives goes back and forth in time between Floss beginning her practice in England in the 1950’s, and Neva and Grace practicing in Rhode Island, in the present day.
If, like me, you were fascinated by the novel Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, (and in particular, by the complex dynamics of being a midwife in a time and place in which modern western medicine often promotes hospital births as THE RIGHT way for a woman to give birth) you will also find much to chew on in Hepworth’s novel.

Neva is a midwife who works in a birthing center, where there are pediatricians and ob-gyns present, whereas her mom, Grace, a certified midwife, mostly assists in home births (unless a complicated birth necessitates hospital intervention.)
However, even if you’re not fascinated by this stuff, you’ll still find a lot to enjoy in The Secrets of Midwives.
For one thing, Hepworth writes a rollicking good tale. In Floss, Grace, and Neva, she has created three women who I cared about (though I will admit to feeling frustrated with all of them at times).
I also loved the settings…rural England, present day coastal Rhode Island…this was great summer escapism.
The Secrets of Midwives is by no means as intense or dark (for the MOST part) as Bohjalian’s Midwives. It reminded me tonally  of the novels of Kate Morton mixed with those of Julie Cohen. The Secrets of Midwives was a book I was pretty sure would end happily, even though it contained tragedy.
There were a couple of things which I didn’t love about this book. First, it was, at times, disappointingly superficial/gender oppressive. For example, the men that Neva falls for obviously have to be gorgeous, obviously, Neva is gorgeous, (in ways that are in alignment with all our cultural expectations for today!) Not a big surprise, but it would have made me happier, if this book, with so much going for it, could have challenged those norms.
I also felt bad for Floss’s lover Lil, who was long-suffering, quiet, and mostly ignored by the three main characters. It really ticked me off, to be honest, the way she was treated, and how it seemed that everyone just assumed that she had no story of her own, other than as a support to them.
That said, I ENJOYED The Secrets of Midwives. When Sally Hepworth writes another tale, I will be right there reading it.

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The Unseen by Katherine Webb

The UnseenThe Unseen by Katherine Webb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Unseen was a pure pleasure to read. I’ve been on a bit of a Kate Morton, Hannah Richell, kick recently-give me the British Isles, a little bit of mystery, a few ghosts, and a little romance, and I’m in literary heaven. 🙂
The Unseen was all these things, and was also a story which affected me deeply.
On the surface, the novel follows Reverend Albert Canning and his wife Hester during one formative and tragic summer in 1911. The newlyweds live quietly in a small village in the English countryside, and have just hired a new maid named Cat. The other main player in the drama that enfolds is a young theosophist named Robin, a charismatic, handsome young man who hopes to make his name by proving the existence of fairies.
Without revealing spoilers, it is safe to say that the novel deals with big issues, such as freedom, women’s rights, homosexuality, and the detrimental affects of guilt. The theme of deception, of oneself, and of others, runs throughout.
What I really enjoyed about the novel was how much I empathized with most of the main characters, flawed as some of them were. Even as they made horrible choices, it was clear to see how their violence and insanity was exacerbated, if not excused, by their own suffering and guilt.
In contrast to the narrative taking place around the turn of the century, part of The Unseen also follows journalist Leah in the present day as she investigates those past events. I found Leah’s story, which includes a rather tepid romance, to be much less compelling than the narrative set in 1911. In fact, I almost think that The Unseen didn’t need the present-day investigation as a structure, and would have been stronger if it had left out the dual-time aspect.
Regardless, I really, really enjoyed The Unseen. It gave me insight into a fascinating period in history, as well as introducing me to a group of characters who I connected with deeply. On a scale of emotional intensity from 1-10, I would rate The Unseen an 8. I fell in love with Cat, with her, earnest, loyal, and kind, lover George, and with Hester Canning, struggling to understand her husband and her world.
I left the characters of The Unseen with reluctance, and highly recommend this memorable novel.

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