Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh

This was enjoyable to read, and I had high hopes for a novel getting in deep on abortion—through clinic employees and protesters, not patients. Our heroine is Claudia, who grew up in a poor New England town and after a failed starter marriage and a few years as an assistant editor at a vapid women’s magazine is now the counselor for a Boston abortion clinic. The value of women is explicitly front and center — perhaps bordering on too explicitly, for my taste. But the characters are engaging, and the writing is good.

We then get the points of view of several men mixed in. Anthony, a young man recovering from a brain injury who takes comfort in going to daily mass where everyone else is old, has gotten sucked into what he thinks is a friendship online with “Excelsior11,” who sends him on missions to photograph women going into the clinic where Claudia works. Excelsior 11 is Victor, whose viewpoint we also get — an old white guy obsessed with preparing for an apocalypse, who is very upset that white women are having abortions because the white race needs to be preserved. To him, Anthony is not a friend, just a lieutenant. And then we get Tim (Timmy) Flynn, Claudia’s weed dealer, who also sells to Anthony (who knew Tim’s sister when they were in school, in an odd relationship we hear a little about). Poor Anthony considers Tim to be his best friend, although that’s not reciprocated. These storylines intersect, but generally obliquely. I certainly didn’t want them to all end up in the same place and have it out, but I did think they might hang together just a little bit more than they ultimately did.

I have two complaints. First: in a book that talks so explicitly about the role and value of women, especially as mothers (or not), do we really need our heroine to get accidentally pregnant and wrestle with that? Adding that element, to me, pushed this a little too close to cliche territory. Second: Victor’s point of view. It is detailed, and there is explicit explanation of what he thinks and believes and why, but it is crystal clear that the writer thinks it is inexcusable and contemptible. And it is—but I am really coming to believe that if you cannot summon true empathy for a character, such that you can really imagine feeling what they feel, you should not give him his own point of view. It can be done with characters who do and say and believe entirely inexcusable things, albeit rarely. But it hasn’t been done here.

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