Jennifer Haigh’s “Mercy Street” frustrated me.
Because Haigh is such a good writer, I wanted this book to be better.
Set in Boston in early 2015, “Mercy Street” is a topical book, seeking to address both sides of the abortion issue.
Representing the side that abortion is a woman’s choice and must be kept legal are the employees and clients of Mercy Street, one of the city’s abortion clinics.
These characters are richly drawn.
In particular, there is the book’s protagonist, 43-year-old Claudia Birch, an access coordinator at Mercy Street, whose job is to counsel women seeking abortions.
Through her eyes, we meet rape victims, domestic abuse survivors, prostitutes and addicts.
Claudia and the women are fleshed out and believable. Although we may not agree with their decision to end a pregnancy, we understand it. We can empathize.
The characters representing the side that abortion is murder and must be outlawed are the protesters — primarily men — who show up every morning outside Mercy Street, heckling and cajoling women not to abort.
Unfortunately, these characters are not as fleshed out and are not sympathetic.
There is Anthony Blanchard, also known as Winky, an “involuntary celibate,” who, because of a traumatic brain injury, lives on disability in his mother’s basement.
He considers Victor Prine to be one of his “best friends,” although the two have never met face-to-face.
Victor is a Vietnam vet who lives in rural Pennsylvania, stockpiles weapons and wants to save the white race by requiring white women to bring their pregnancies to term. Because both characters are deeply flawed, it is nearly impossible to appreciate their position that abortion is murder.
An author is bound to have a position on abortion, and I don’t fault Haigh hers.
I simply wish she’d made more of an effort to discover why people might consider abortion murder and not relied on Anthony and Victor to represent that position.
Other characters could have represented the position or at least added to it. There is Claudia’s ex-husband Phil, a lawyer, with whom Claudia is still friendly. There is the marijuana dealer Tim Flynn.
Neither of these characters is deeply flawed, and their support of the argument that abortion is murder could have provided balance and substance to the book.
Irrespective of an unbalanced discussion of the abortion issue, Haigh is a gifted writer. Her prose is a joy.
The book opens as Boston is getting hit with “a massive nor’easter [that had] roared up the coast, spinning and kicking like a kung fu fighter.” (p. 3).
That imagery will stay with me.
Claudia will also stay with me.
Haigh characterizes her as feeling inadequate because of being raised poor in rural Maine.
When Claudia marries Phil, she happily takes his last name Landau in an attempt “to be relieved of her birchness….” (p. 93), and later: “A landau is an elegant horse-drawn carriage. A birch, in Maine, is the commonest sort of tree.” (p. 94)
I admire Haigh’s writing, so regardless of my frustration with “Mercy Street,” I strongly recommend it.
(Maureen Cooke has been writing, editing and teaching others to write for the past 30 years. She’s a member of the Corrales Writers’ Group.)