Once upon a time, Heather and Brian fall in love in New York City, where she is an actress and he is a writer. Early in their relationship she gets pregnant. “Knowingly unprotected,” Harpham writes of their sex life. Never mind that Brian warned her: “If he wanted to have kids with anyone, Brian kept saying, it would be with me. If.” Sure enough, Brian doesn’t want the baby. Heather would love to be married to him, would love for him to figure out that he actually wants to be a father and a husband. But what Brian offers instead is financial support. Heartbroken, Heather moves back to California where she’s surrounded by friends and family, people who bring her dinners, and ice cream, and even a dog to keep her warm in the bed. She pines for Brian, but doesn’t tell him so. “We did not talk about the baby.” It’s one of many conversations they manage to avoid. “If we sit here long enough, I thought, things will shift,” Harpham writes before leaving New York. “But sitting on the steps of my landing, side by side in silence, we were the exact the [sic] same people we’d been an hour ago.” Throughout the book, she and Brian find themselves next to one another, barely speaking, “touching along the length of our sides: ankles, knees, thighs, hips, arms, shoulders.”
But when she goes into labor, Brian isn’t there. Her mother attends the birth in his stead. Her newborn daughter is perfect for a few hours, but a rare blood disorder quickly thrusts the baby into ambulances and hospitals: she needs transfusions. From afar Brian teeters on the edge of commitment, closely guarding his solitary writing time and rent-controlled-apartment-with-a-view. Eventually he’s drawn to California for a visit. And then another. An odd courtship resumes between him and Heather and revolves around the baby — Amelia-Grace — whose life is a big “if.”
Amid this long-distance courtship, Heather becomes pregnant again. “The fact that we were people who would rather not say condom aloud,” writes Harpham, “was maybe why we were always one step behind the best practices in birth control.” But the second pregnancy has the potential to be a blessing. If the new sibling is a match, the cord blood could save Amelia-Grace, who otherwise is doomed to a short life of extreme medical intervention. And yet Heather panics:
A second child now would seal my fate to Brian’s. I felt a rising feral terror of being trapped with two small children in a disintegrating relationship. Even a non-disintegrating one. How could I decide if I wanted to stay with Brain when I had to stay with Brian?
Together with Amelia-Grace, whom they call Gracie, they go to a secluded beach house to sort things out together. Lying on the bed, Brian asks, “Are you happy?” Harpham responds, “I might be.” And then:
“OK,” I said.
“OK?” Brian said.
The exchange is this couple’s version of a vow. While it might seem precarious, from this moment on Brian is committed: completely and whole-heartedly. And the more committed he becomes, the more Heather’s resentment and anger grow. “I am bizarrely furious,” she writes. “Fury in search of an object.” Her rage sneaks out in shrill tones and silent looks.
The new baby, Gabriel, is born, and he is a match to be a bone marrow donor for his sister. Even so, Heather and Brian are ambivalent about the transplant procedure. Is it worth putting their daughter through such distress? What if she doesn’t survive? For months they agonize. At last, when Amelia-Grace is three, they decide to go through with it. After a brief move back to New York, they relocate to temporary housing in Durham, North Carolina, where they’ll wind up spending months at Duke Hospital.
If the story was initially about Heather and Brian stumbling into a relationship, at this point the narrative turns completely toward Amelia-Grace. Harpham remembers Gracie’s most-quoted movie, her preferred toys, her favorite nurse, as well as the sludgy chemo that she’s forced to swallow, and the neon-green vomit that comes from her empty stomach. Brian, meanwhile, almost disappears from the scene. Where once he was the focus, he’s now a bit player. If we haven’t wondered already, we might be asking ourselves at this point: what’s this book really about?
It wants to be an exploration of happiness — a fascinating subject, and Harpham is a heroine for our times. She was, after all, no fairy tale princess. Notwithstanding her deep desire to be married, when she met her prince she was an independent woman, living alone in New York, paying her rent as an actress. That she was as invested as she was in the conventional tropes of marriage and family might shine a light on our society, on how heavily we’ve been influenced by Walt Disney, Nora Ephron, and Jane Austen alike. In spite of her optimism, when Heather finally gets what she wants — a husband and children — she becomes disenchanted. That’s something to look at — however, a real examination would require confrontation.
Not that Harpham avoids facing off with people (a furniture rental clerk in North Carolina bears the brunt of her anger when their sublet has no lamps or dining chairs) but she’s secretive about herself with those around her, ranging from doctors to close friends. When she forms an intimate friendship with a new neighbor in Brooklyn, she withholds almost everything about her daughter, her marriage, her anxiety and grief:
I never mentioned Gracie’s illness. I didn’t tell Kathy that the toddler kicking her feet with faux hunger as we passed the ice cream truck had thus far visited UCSF Medical Center, Oakland Children’s, Stanford, NYU Medical Center, Weill Cornell Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Columbia University Medical Center, Long Island Jewish Hospital, Hackensack Medical Center, and Boston Children’s. I didn’t tell her that we’d recently sent slides of Gracie’s blood to a specialist at the NIH and several doctors at the Mayo Clinic.
I didn’t share with her the oodles of conflicting advice we’d gotten.
[…] I didn’t even tell her that Brian and I weren’t married because that part of our story invoked the whole: the unsettling fact that we looked like one thing but were another.
As honest as she is with us, we might wish Harpham were more rigorous with both her former and current selves. She’s a fine writer, and her story is captivating, but she has occasionally missed out on opportunities for reflection and self-interrogation.
Take the time at the hospital when Gracie wants sherbet, and Brian offers to go get it. Harpham is gleeful for time alone with her daughter:
When Brian leaves I say, “Gracie? Sweetie?” […] “You are getting Gabey’s blood, and it’s going to cure you.” […] Brian doesn’t like it when I superimpose my adult anxieties on her child’s reality. […] Let her have this experience as a three-year old. But I want her to hold on to this idea: she will be cured.
Brian returns with sherbet, and Harpham’s mother arrives “with pulled pork sandwiches for everyone.” But if anyone is paying attention, “everyone” doesn’t include Brian, who’s a vegetarian. This is where we might ask for a pause, for a moment when the writer changes the angle of her understanding to ask herself what she didn’t notice the first time through. The oversight, in the lived experience and then the writing of it, creates an uncomfortable distance between the reader and the author in both her roles, as narrator and character.
Harpham’s sense of humor also creates distance. When a doctor first explains to her that iron inside her daughter’s red blood cells might lodge in her brain, she replies with a joke:
“So you are saying what, exactly?” I said. “She’s at risk for rust head?” He looked at me, appraising. A long silent moment went by. “That’s humor,” he said finally, “common coping mechanism.”
Though Harpham admits to it, the doctor’s insight becomes a replacement for deeper investigation. Indeed, she “copes” this way in the writing, too — sometimes hilariously. (On an airplane Gracie insists that Gabe give her all of the elephant-shaped animal crackers. Harpham writes, “Gabriel is giving you his stem cells, I wanted to say. Let him have the ever-loving elephant.”) But the effect lessens over time. Harpham is trained in improv, a form that has morphed, over the years, into a close synonym for comedy. The origins of improvisation, though, reside in process rather than punch line; discovery is found only by falling without a net. If we could, we’d ask for the same in these pages: more depth and less gloss, more seeking and less knowing.
One moment especially offers just this sort of nuance. A baby at the hospital unexpectedly dies. His parents obviously have a close marriage, a relationship that stands in contrast to Heather and Brian’s. Afterward, when Heather goes to say goodbye to the couple, the father explains that they’re waiting for his cousin to arrive so they can drive home together. “We were three coming down here,” he tells her, “and we would be only two going home.” The chapter ends there, holding the reader in the eerie, liminal space that death imposes on life.
Meanwhile, that Harpham’s family has survived is less a “happily ever after,” and more the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other of real life. We know, we grown-ups, that a marriage is stronger for having endured a trial or two, and that what children bring, along with so much else, is a deep joy that’s layered with worry and fear. “I’m so happy I’m crying,” Heather says to her daughter when they can finally go home after a year of relentless medical intervention. Amelia-Grace is perhaps too young to understand that happiness is necessarily striated. But we grown-ups get it. We know the cost.