My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It has been more than a week since I finished reading this book and I have been struggling with how to review it. It breaks most of the standard rules for fiction–genre, literary, or otherwise–but is surprisingly affecting and effective in its message, in spite or perhaps because of its idiosyncrasies.
Gloria, an upper-middle-class white American woman, discovers that she is unexpectedly pregnant in middle age, with a baby that is not her husband’s–and in fact not of this place and time at all. At the same time, Gloria dreams of the life of another young woman, who calls herself Earth Girl, and who dies in childbirth. Gloria’s relationship to Earth Girl and her baby and the way their stories intertwine is the subject of this book.
At first I had difficulty relating to Gloria, who functions as the first-person narrator for much of the story. She came across to me as a bit self-absorbed, a bit clueless, and introspective about all the wrong things. Her voice too was tritely realistic. She reminded me of an annoying teacher I had in high school or of somebody else’s mother–an adult whom I had to talk to to be polite, but mostly tried to avoid. I found the Earth Girl dreams interesting but they too seemed rather cliched at first, like something you might read about in a fundraising mailing from Americares or Children International.
As the book went along, though, I started to identify with Gloria as a person who felt trapped and swept along by larger forces beyond her control. A number of shocking and unbelievable things happen to Gloria as the story progresses, and after an initial very bad decision motivated by panic, somehow she pulls herself together, copes, and carries on, reconciling with her husband and raising her very unusual daughter in the still comfortably upper middle class community of Newport, RI.
This theme of being able to live more or less normally alongside earth-shattering facts and events, becomes the book’s disquieting cautionary tale. When the time comes, Gloria meets even her own death with a quiet dignity and equanimity that was both admirable and a little frightening.
The last quarter of the book, after Gloria dies, is a departure from what came before in both style and content. Events happen so quickly and catastrophically that I felt it was almost a different book, allegorical rather than realistic. I think the narrative would have been overall better served by mixing the two sections: specifically by providing some more ambiguity and foreshadowing outside of Gloria’s claustrophobic point of view in the first 3/4, so that the ending doesn’t come so figuratively as well as literally from outer space.
In spite of these flaws, I found that the book and its characters stayed with me long after I put it down. We don’t want to be Earth Girl, and to avoid the future she represents, we can’t afford to be Gloria anymore either.