My nursing background lured me to Australian Sally Hepworth's novel, The Secrets of Midwives and I was not disappointed. Hepworth's in-depth research offers an intriguing view into the world of midwifery, covering a period of sixty years. Well-developed characters are the heart of this novel. Three women from three generations explore the mother-daughter relationship.
The chapters alternate from the first person point of view of grandmother Floss to mother Grace to daughter Neva, all three of whom are nurse-midwives. This structure works well to build tension as the characters share their individual secrets and problems with the reader, though not with each other. Grace is the least likable; she is opinionated and offensive with her intense hatred and mistrust of physicians and hospitals. Her daughter, Neva, is likable and easier to care about. Retired midwife Floss, Grace's mother, is often the most interesting of the trio. Her story transports readers back in time to England, where she rides a bicycle to make house calls and deliver babies. Widowed Floss comes across the Atlantic with her newborn daughter and settles on Conanicut Island, Rhode Island. The island becomes like a character itself as the story unfolds.
Grace and Floss live near each other on the island. Neva works in the birthing room at the large mainland hospital. The novel starts a bit slow, but the momentum picks up by page thirty. This introduction is necessary for the author to establish the ground-work to create this gripping tale that quickly becomes a page-turner.
Floss carries her secret as if it is her personal cross to bear. She wants to confess but fears the truth will destroy her relationship with Grace and Neva. Floss begins to wonder if continuing to hide her secrets is perhaps more harmful than sharing them. Gregarious Grace's secrets are of a totally different nature but could impact them all with serious consequences. She risks everything as she makes a stand for her beliefs. Neva is reticent, single and pregnant. She hides her pregnancy as long as possible, stubbornly refusing to name the father of the baby. When asked, "Whose is it" She responds, "It's mine."
I admire Floss, Grace, and Neva's love for each other, which they maintain while balancing their own complicated lives. They continue their monthly dinners, totally supportive of each other, all the while keeping their secrets. Pressure intensifies as a classic New England snowstorm strands Neva on the island with her mother and grandmother.
A strong thread throughout the novel examines marriage and adoption, as well as the concept of what makes a family a family. The author addresses multiple relationships and moves flawlessly from one character's voice to another. Neva's friendship with co-worker, Dr. Patrick proves to be a strong component of the family structure they create for her beautiful baby girl. Proving Floss was right, "When it comes to family, biology is only part of it."
The Secrets of Midwives is an unforgettable story, the kind that lingers in a reader's memory. I am sad that it is over and find myself missing my new friends, the midwives.
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Sally Hepworth has lived around the world, spending extended periods in Singapore, the U.K., and Canada, where she worked in event management and Human Resources. She is the author of Love Like the French, published by Random House Germany in February 2014. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two children. She is currently working on her next novel. Visit her website.
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