an After abortion

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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Boyfriends and abortion.

Many people who trouble themselves to write about abortion have an agenda, one way or the other. This results in a situation where much of what gets said on either side is automatically discounted by truth-seeking readers, who don't feel that they can entirely trust the claims made by Writers With Agendas.

I appreciate songs, stories and other literary treatments of abortion partly because they tend to depict abortion in a way that is relatively agenda-free. Anne Sexton didn't write The Abortion in order to convince people that abortions haunt people. Same for Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem, The Mother, or Ernest Hemingway in Hills Like White Elephants.

That brings me to today's subject, which is a realistic portrayal of a boyfriend pressuring his lover to obtain an abortion in the recent New York Times bestselling novel, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan.

Fans of abortion have very little to say about the pressures that are often placed on pregnant women to abort. Sanitized, even romantic, pictures are drawn of how the decision to abort is reached. No one is pressured, everyone is thoughtful, and all decisions are well-considered.

This makes it especially surprising to see the much more realistic picture of boyfriend-pressure that emerges in Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman.

What's even more surprising is that none of the many mainstream critics who have praised and highly lauded this book object to Buchan's treatment of this pivotal plot element.

Considering how the boyfriend treats his pregnant girlfriend, it's revealing that none of the reviewers found the portrayal implausible, noteworthy or unrealistic. My guess is that this is because these reviewers recognize the boyfriend's treatment of his pregnant girlfriend as a truthful portrait of an under-recognized feature of modern life.

Here are some comments made in the mainstream press about Revenge:

"Wise and wonderful"--USA Today.

"Thoughtful, intelligent, funny--poised, witty and emotionally resonant."--The Boston Globe.

"Elizabeth Buchan takes a familiar story and reinvigorates it with honesty,
humor, warmth and wisdom."--Patricia Gaffney

"Wise, melancholy, funny and sophisticated."--The Times (London)

See more reviews here.

Rose is the protagonist of Revenge. At the time of the novel, she is 47. Her husband has just left her for a younger woman. One of the reasons he gives for leaving her is that he never fully believed that she loved him. To him, it has always seemed that her heart remains with her first love, Hal.

In a flashback half-way through, Rose reflects on her first pregnancy. She has just finished up her highly successful education at Oxford, and leaves for an expedition to the Amazon with Hal. Hal is committed to a life of travel and adventure. He and Rose are deeply in love. "Hal was my poetry and my passion. He was the dreaming youth, the whisper of enchanted lands, the magician that transformed my life."

In a rough camp upriver, Rose vomits into the bushes.

"I sensed that Hal was behind me. I stood upright and wrapped my arms across my stomach. "Tell me the truth," he said. "Could you be pregnant?"

"I'm not sure. It's possible," I whispered. "I don't know."

"How late?"

"Over three weeks."

His hand closed roughly on my shoulder. "What are you going to do?"

"Don't you mean what are we going to do?" I closed my eyes. It was a question of will, and I would will it not to be so. "It could be anything. It happens. The system goes haywire and then adjusts."

"I hope so," he said. "Jeez, I hope so."


I shall will it not to be so.

So I said, so I believed, with the hard confidence and ignorance of twenty-one. But it was wasted, for I had come up against something stronger than will. I had been beaten by biology.

Deep in the rainforest, I took the plunge. Driven almost mad by hormones, fear and love, I cornered Hal after an evening meal eaten around the fire. "I am pregnant."

He closed his eyes. "I knew it." He opened them. "What are you going to do?"

"Keep it. There's no question. It's our baby." I felt a whisper of excitement, of tenderness. "Our baby, Hal."

"No," he said flatly. "That's not the plan. I don't want children."

It was dark and I could not see his face clearly. But I sensed that a stubborn, ruthless gleam would have sprung into the blue eyes while mine would be reflecting confusion and anger...yes, anger. "Well, we can't ignore it. It's not an overdraft or a headache."

"I didn't ask for it."

"You're being outrageous."

"Sure, I am. If being honest is outrageous."

"But it has happened." I reached out to touch him but he moved away. My hand dropped to my side.

"Our plan was to work and travel."

"I know. I wanted to do that, too, but plans change. They have to sometimes. We must make others."

He peered through the dusk at me for a long time, and it was as if he was saying, After all this time, we have not understood one another at all. "But I don't wish to change my plans, Rose."


I looked up at him. "We are responsible for a baby. It has no one else."

"Only if I accept responsibility."

The prospect of being alone with a baby made me panic, and I heard an ignorant, desperate stranger's voice--mine--babbling. It wouldn't make any difference, I argued, and the words poured out of me. It need not alter anything. Babies were hauled around in slings, left in cloakrooms, given to someone else to look after. A baby could be as unobtrusive, and as uneventful, as one wished it to be.

He listened in silence. At last he stirred. "Even I know better."

I bent my head. "Okay," I said. "We won't talk about this again. I will deal with it."

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