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Book Review: Midwives by Chris Bohjalian (5/5)

7 May

I’ve owned a signed copy of this book for years. I met Bohjalian back in 2014 and got this book signed. It’s lingered on my shelf since then. I’m making great efforts to actually read my books so here I am, getting through a backlog that’s five years old. I’ve seen that there’s a movie of this one out there so I’ll have to watch that soon on a recovery day.

Cover image via Goodreads

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

Other books by Bohjalian reviewed on this blog:

Before You Know Kindness (and two book club reflections)
The Sandcastle Girls
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Summary from Goodreads:

The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby’s life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if—as Sibyl’s assistant later charges—the patient wasn’t already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?

As recounted by Sibyl’s precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives—and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.

This book kept me up late reading every night I picked it up. I had to decide not to read a few nights because I couldn’t afford to be up for another half hour engrossed in the book. It was mesmerizing that someone with the best of intentions, like Sibyl, could be so reviled and hated. She was doing her job. I was a bit terrified that something like that could happen to me.

Connie was very real to me. She was an observer and a good set of eyes for this story. I think Sibyl’s reactions were very real, too. And the father. Overall, it felt real. I would have been lost in a similar situation and I think they all felt that except for the lawyers. A manslaughter charge isn’t something many people face regularly so being unsure how to navigate and lost in a legal battle made sense. If the characters had felt confident, it would have been weird.

I liked how Connie took charge toward the end. For so long, she was the observer and though we get a bit of her as her own person, she doesn’t do much in the story until the end. She understands what is at risk and she wants to help her mother and without saying too much, I’ll say that she does those things. She’s a very loving daughter. She has her doubts about what her mother is doing and what she has done, but she’s very loving. I liked seeing her come into herself at the end.

The loss and confusion the characters felt were relatable. I think everyone has a time in their life where they do something they’re confident of but later question everything about that decision. Hopefully, not many people have to do it on the scale of Sibyl’s decision, but I think we all do it. Should I have changed my major? Should I have gone to that party? Should I have picked a different vacation spot? Not everything is cut and dry and Sibyl’s work was a big grey area.

Me and Chris Bohjalian

It wasn’t my favorite part, but the C-Section scene has quite an impact on me. I kept closing my eyes as I read, trying to block out the vivid image but it was only in my head. I was visibly cringing to a point my husband asked if I was OK. It was very well written and the descriptions were incredible.

A lot of time was dedicated to Connie and Tom’s relationship and I felt like it fell flat at the end of the book. I would have liked a little something more to make it memorable. If they weren’t going to last, maybe a first sexual encounter or a bigger role in supporting her through the trial. I just felt it could have concluded a bit better.

So many things in life are not right or wrong, they are somewhere in the middle. What Sibyl did can’t be described as either. Her actions were neither perfect nor deeply flawed. The situation was so complicated that it’s unclear if a good outcome could have resulted no matter what. Personally, I think I would have found Sibyl innocent, but I’m hearing Connie’s side of the story. Maybe Asa’s story would have convinced me otherwise.

Writer’s Takeaway: Making the reader uncomfortable isn’t always a bad thing. The operation scene was vivid but it was great. I didn’t agree completely with Connie’s actions, but I understand why she did it. I’m not sure if Sibyl’s reaction was the right call, but it’s what she did. None of the actions were ambiguous, but how I feel about them are uncomfortable. It made me enjoy this book and think about it for weeks afterward. That’s a great accomplishment.

This book kept me interested and engaged until the end. Five out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian | Ardent Reader
Review: Midwives | Quirky Girls Read