Sunday, April 5, 2015

Three in a Row: Infertility Sneak Attack!

Reading is my number one escape. An ideal vacation for me would be one measured in how many books I read. Which is hard to do politely if you're visiting other people. Bryce and I love to take quiet vacations where we spend our days hiking or snowshoeing and our evenings/afternoons curled up with a good book and a glass of wine. We often take books with us in case there is a nice quiet place to sit and read. Man, we are exciting people.

What is less than relaxing, though, is when you're reading a book that you didn't know had an infertility subplot and BAM! there it is, smacking you in the face. I don't know how I feel about trigger warnings, but I am usually pretty good at knowing when there is a book I can read at a moment in time and when there's not, when it's mentioned in the cover copy or reviews. But when an infertility subplot is not mentioned AT ALL in the copy and is nestled deep in the book? Kind of a suckerpunch.

Once upon a time, I might not finish a book because of this. Case in point, I loved A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. So I was REALLY REALLY excited when the second book came out a few years ago, Shadow of Night. I was really happy with it at first, until (I don't think this is a spoiler because it's so early in the book and I guess pretty integral to the plotline and conflict)... she turns out to be six weeks pregnant. And time-travels to Elizabethan England ANYWAY. I had just had a miscarriage at about six weeks, the first time I was pregnant in my actual uterus (not that it mattered), and I tried so hard to keep reading but just...couldn't. It hit too close to home. I was too irritated that someone would take risks with a pregnancy like that, and then irritated that it seemed (to the point where I stopped anyway) to work out just fine. I realize, yes, this is FICTION, and these people and their problems aren't actually real, but it was real for me and so I put it up. Maybe one day I'll read it again.

Lately, though, infertility subplots bother me a little less, especially if they're done well. Although I have to say I was really disappointed when my favorite, The Mindy Project, turned out to have her opening a fertility clinic and then she got pregnant. It made it a little harder to watch.

These past few weeks have found me faced with not one, not two, but THREE books that had infertility subplots that were hidden within the book, not mentioned in the cover copy at all. I did finish them all, and they were all really good books, but I thought they deserved a bit of a warning.

The first was my book club selection. I had already decided that I was going to choose The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, a twisty unreliably-narrated thriller. It looked really fun and messed up, and messed-up is something I love in a book. From what I could gather, it was about a woman who saw a couple from the windows of her commuter train every day and fantasized about their lives until one day the wife goes missing and she kind of oversteps her boundaries in thinking how well she knew her and how much she may or may not actually know. Except she's a blackout drunk, so very little of what she sees or knows is at all reliable, especially to her. Sounds great, right? Then I had lunch with a booky friend of mine, who usually lets me know when things have a subplot that may be hard to swallow. "I was going to lend you this book, but maybe you'd rather read it a little later--"The Girl on the Train?" She then explained that the REASON why the main character, Rachel, drinks to blackout is because she was infertile, could only afford one IVF cycle, and then her husband left her and immediately impregnated the woman he was cheating on her with. Ouch. I stuck with my choice. Partly because, as my friend said, "I thought she did a really good job with infertility--a lot of what she said sounded like things you've said about how you've felt in different situations."

So I kept it for sure, and started reading it a couple weeks before book club.  And she was right -- it was very skillfully done. To the point where I was nearly in tears, because it is so rare that someone GETS IT RIGHT in books, TV, or movies. (Case in point for getting it wrong -- Still Alice, where Kate Bosworth informs her mother that thank goodness they hadn't started their latest round of IUI because the doctors could test the embryos for the Alzheimer's gene, which had me batty with inaccuracy, and then followed it up with knowing you're pregnant with twins and announcing it to your family at, wait for it...FIVE WEEKS along. ARRRRGGGGHHHHH.)

I could relate to wanting to blot out your feelings after suffering through the losses of infertility and the sense things being your fault. I am not a blackout drunk, or a drunk, but I can see how you could become one if you didn't have compassion and support surrounding you. Especially if you only had one shot at IVF and it failed. I could relate to how the author described the feelings of infertility, as quoted here:

"I'm better now, about the children thing; I've got better, since I've been on my own. I've had to. I've read books and articles, I've realized that I must come to terms with it. There are strategies, there is hope. If I straightened myself out and sobered up, there's a possibility that I could adopt. And I'm not thirty-four yet--it isn't over. I'm better than I was a few years ago, when I used to abandon my trolley and leave the supermarket if the place was packed with mums and kids; I wouldn't have been able to come to a park like this, to sit near the playground and watch chubby toddlers rolling down the slide. There were times, at my lowest, when the hunger was at its worst, when I thought I was going to lose my mind." (pgs 79-80)

I have had that exact feeling. I have sped my way out of Wegman's to avoid what seemed like an onslaught of babies, especially fresh ones, that had my heart racing and my eyes burning with tears I refused to spill in the frozen aisle. I have agreed to meet friends at their houses instead of at parks when there were more than one set of small children, because the thought of being the one without children at a child-a-palooza was just too much. I have felt all these feels. There's more in there, so it's worth reading, but also worth a warning. And it was messed-up, in the best possible way.

Next I read a book in the Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer, Fairest. These are young adult novels, starting with Cinder, then Scarlet, then Cress. We're waiting until fall for Winter, but in the meantime a short novel that explains the evil Queen Levana's backstory came out to try to settle the restless readers. If you haven't enjoyed these, give them a shot. You sound completely insane trying to explain them -- it's fairy tale storylines fit into a futuristic setting where the moon has become home to Lunars, who have the ability to glamour people into doing what they want or seeing what they want them to see and there is brewing war between the Lunars and the Earthens and a horrible plague, letumosis, is killing off a zillion people on Earth and, um, Cinderella is a cyborg. Yup, insanity. But so much fun! Scarlet adds in a Red Riding Hood type character and genetically engineered wolfman soldiers that the Lunars have cooked up, and Cress features a Rapunzel-like person whose tower is a...satellite. Like I said, you sound nuts trying to explain them and they sound tacky/campy, but they really are phenomenal.

I started up Fairest, which gives you insight into Queen Levana of the Lunars, and how she got so horribly evil, shortly before school break. It's a fast read. And guess what? Being infertile doesn't just make you possibly a blackout drunk. It also can add to the hurts that lead you to evil queenship. YUP, THAT'S RIGHT, QUEEN EFFING LEVANA IS INFERTILE. I don't think this is a spoiler, but it's not mentioned WHATSOEVER in any copy I've seen, so it kind of sucker punched me a bit.

But, I have to say, again the author did a good job of it. The experience of infertility wasn't mangled. And, Levana is super young, so it breaks the stereotype of the "waited too long" infertility (ugh to that). Here's a quote that made me feel less annoyed about this subplot infiltrating my sci-fi YA escape:

"Dr. Eliot was largely unhelpful. She went on and on about how it could take time, and they would look into further treatment when Levana got a bit older, if they still had not had any success. The woman even had the nerve to tell Levana to relax, to not worry about it so much. It would happen when it was meant to happen.

Levana was tempted to make the infuriating woman jab a scalpel into her own eye." (pg 122)

I'd share more, but can't because of spoilers. Needless to say, it was handled well. And I guess I'd rather end up an evil queen than a blackout drunk, so it's nice to know that infertile fictional characters have options.

The third and last of my run of sneak-attack infertility subplots in my escapist reading material was What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarity. She's the one behind The Husband's Secret and Big Little Lies, both nice and twisty and without an infertility subplot (that I can remember, anyway...nothing bigger than a passing mention). This one seemed less thriller-y, whodunit, and more light escapist, romantic-comedy-friendly fare. A woman hits her head in spin class, and wakes up thinking it's 10 years earlier, in 1998. In 1998 she was 29, happily married, pregnant with her first child, and adorable. In 2008, she's in the middle of a divorce, stay at home mother of three children, and kind of a bitch, actually. So of course all kinds of mayhem ensues and she gets to examine where she was headed and where she ended up and you know eventually she'll get her memory back and THEN what will happen? The book was engrossing, touching, and funny, and got me through a day on airplanes and in airports on our way to the Houston area to visit Bryce's dad and his wife.


Except in NO PLACE in the copy did it mention that Alice, the amnesiac who's lost ten years, has a sister who suffers recurrent miscarriages and has done 8 rounds of IVF over the past 8 years, without a take-home baby. Her sister's grief and the transformation that probably took place gradually but Alice is seeing in one fell swoop thanks to her amnesia that has her inexplicably sadder, chubbier, and more bitter is slowly revealed. I don't think this is a spoiler, because if you have suffered infertility you will IMMEDIATELY know what's up with Elizabeth. IMMEDIATELY. And if you have suffered infertility, Elizabeth's situation will make you cry. I won't tell you how it all ends, but I will tell you that struggling with the options of continuing treatment, choosing to live child-free, or choosing to attempt parenting through adoption is on the table in this book. It is handled fairly sensitively and I must say that Liane Moriarty just has to have suffered infertility herself or has a very close friend who has. Because she is dead on. I can't share quotes because of spoilers, but she does beautifully with:
- Feeling sadness at mourning children that never were but you feel their loss tremendously
- Feeling paralyzed by the silence of your home (HOLY HELL, Liane Moriarty, you were IN MY HEAD on that one)
- Feeling completely hopeless and needing to just sit somewhere in a state of numbness for a while
- Feeling ingracious about your bitterness over a success story's exuberant gushing that her kids were from IVF and that there is hope, which at times can feel worse because you know you should be happy at the hopefulness of someone else's success but really you just want to scream, "HOW NICE THAT YOU ARE SUCCESSFUL! THAT IN NO WAY PREDICTS MY OWN SUCCESS! You don't know how I feel ANYMORE!"
- Feeling insanely angry at other people's meddling, even if it is well-intended
- Enjoying the bitterness of fellow infertile friends who "get it" and don't encourage you to be positive all the time, because sometimes you just want to wallow in the negativity and/or be super bitchy about the Fertiles
- Not being able to trust a positive pee stick, or hopeful twinges, whatsoever

The list goes on and on and on and on. It was fantastic. BUT, it needed a freaking trigger warning, because this is one book that if I was in a different place, a struggling-through-IVF place, I would be throwing against the freaking wall. And as it was, I sobbed quietly through the resolution of Elizabeth's struggles. It was a little too real not to.

There you have it. Three books IN A ROW that had unadvertised infertility plotlines. I survived them, and actually appreciated the sensitivity involved with all of them, which is rare (but maybe is becoming more prevalent?). They didn't ruin my escape 100%, but I feel I have done a public service by letting you know what lurks within these excellent books, waiting to sneak attack the next unsuspecting infertile to open their pages.

And now, off to decide whether or not I should become an evil queen.


  1. I know this is meant to be a warning post, but now I'm intrigued and want to read all three books. Thanks for the mini-reviews and for the warnings.

    I'm glad that you're in such a healthy space that you can handle these kinds of bumps, and don't you sometimes find it cathartic to see you own experiences mirrored in literature to both validate your feelings and also see in black and white that other people can understand how painful and difficult IF can be?

    1. What's funny is it is a warning post, but also a "these books are really good" post! :) Yes, definitely cathartic. It is a welcome change to see infertility handled sensitively in literature, as when it's done wrong it can be infuriating. But done right? It feels like, "Wow, you really get what this feels like." And yes, to have your experiences mirrored is such a validating experience. I hope you enjoy the reading! I am full of book recommendations, so if you are ever in a position where you need books to read, give me a holler... :)

  2. I know this post is a year old, but thanks for writing it. I happened across it today because I started reading Girl on the Train without knowing about the subplot. We've been through 3 failed IUIs and 1 failed IVF. Like the narrator, I am "not yet 34" but it is definitively my infertility and not my husband's. It has been so hard; thank you for posting and allowing me to feel less alone and less ridiculously emotional. Wishing you peace in your heart and happy days.

  3. I found out about my fertility issue (I have a septate uterus, a birth defect) after having lots of "unexplainable" pelvic pain in 2009. They did a pap first which was normal so they did an ultrasound of my uterus and I found out that way. My problem basically means that I have an 80-something percent chance of miscarrying. The cycle you described above sounds exactly like a miscarriage to me! I miscarried a twin (carried in one half of my funky uterus) during my pregnancy and it was the most painful, hormonal, and gory experience I've ever had in my life. If you like you can read about my experience with my uterus, pregnancy, and un-natural birth here: Where You Came From - Birth Story.