The first thing you’ll hear about pregnancy in the contemporary novel is: there is nausea. Morning sickness makes the world “tilt slightly,” the unnamed narrator in Louisa Hall’s Reproduction reports. It interferes with thinking, writing, getting anything done. Above all, it creates an obligation to make excuses and break off. When the narrator misses meetings in her first ten weeks, she makes sure to pretend “it was just because I was selfish and careless, and not because of morning sickness.” Similarly, the (also unnamed) narrator of Kate Zambreno’s Drifts (2020) never tells her students why she rushes out of class to vomit. (“They probably just think I’m gross.”) Dorothy, an adjunct professor in Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind (2021), puts on a brave face to her friends.1 “No nausea,” she insists. Nausea is the opposite of creativity; nausea is incoherence, avoidance, delay.
It would be easy to mistake Reproduction for a study of this strangely suspended state—for a book about getting nothing done. The narrator has set herself the task of writing “a novel about Mary Shelley,” finding that Shelley’s experiences of pregnancy and miscarriage bear some resemblance to her own. But the nausea makes writing too difficult, and instead we get flickers of Shelley’s story: the grief of losing her two-week-old daughter (“Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived,” Shelley wrote in her journal); her nickname for her tiny son, “Willmouse”; the gloom of the summer of 1816, when volcanic ash blotted out the sun and she began to write Frankenstein.
The narrator’s own story is just as loose and choppy. A writer and teacher of creative writing, she is always starting over, as she moves from Austin to New York City to Bozeman to Iowa City, from apartment to apartment, college town to college town. She travels to American wildernesses—Glacier National Park, Las Vegas—for no real reason, except to keep moving or to experience dislocation in new settings. In the spirit of much autofiction, her attention seems to alight on everything except the planned work. Details of daily life intrude (her dog’s fear of cardboard boxes, the abandonment of her houseplants when she leaves New York) and an avalanche of news presses into the novel, which begins in 2018 and ends in 2021. Families separated at the US–Mexico border, floods and wildfires, abortion laws in Texas and Alabama are simply noted as they happen, forming not so much part of the story as the disorienting backdrop to a set of events that refuse to connect. Among these are the pregnancies themselves, which either stop abruptly or proceed unpredictably. Disjointedness is the only mode that makes sense, that can reflect the highly politicized, minimally supported experience of being pregnant in America.
But this is only half the story of Reproduction, which also draws from Shelley a sense of dark experiment. Hall’s novel is really two separate but related works: the novel about the narrator who can’t write her book, and that story’s weird outgrowth—a suspense-driven novella about the narrator’s biologist friend, who takes science into her own hands in a Frankenstein-tinged effort to conceive. While the first story relates the anxieties of childbearing today with grinding realism, the second tries to imagine a state that increasingly seems to belong to science fiction: reproductive freedom.
There is a rare and jarring moment of pregnant contentment near the beginning of Reproduction. The narrator, a writer in her mid-thirties, has just arrived in Bozeman, with her husband and dog in tow. In this new place she conceives immediately. At the clinic for her first ultrasound, she sees all the “other young mothers with various sizes of bellies” in the waiting room and feels “immediately welcomed” into this “world inhabited solely by women.”
It’s the kind of nice thought that cannot last; the rest of the novel is more or less devoted to shattering the notion of an easy pregnancy. Even before the narrator learns that anything is wrong, she is filled with foreboding. Her early weeks are steeped in the secrecy of the first trimester. She goes from class to class, carrying the knowledge of “the baby growing from the size of a poppyseed to a cherry” and counting off the weeks before she can tell anyone (“six and then eight and then nine”) on her own, private calendar. All while feeling so “seasick” that she cannot put her thoughts in writing.
When she miscarries, the silence does not break; it deepens. There is the devastating, wordless way she learns that she is no longer pregnant: the sonogram technician is spreading lubricant over her belly; they are chatting and both looking up at the monitor; then “suddenly the technician stopped talking.” There is also the incommunicable aftermath of her loss. Everyone thinks they already understand the situation. What more is there to say? “Everyone…told me how common it was. Miscarriage, they told me, is another one of these things, like eating disorders and rape, that happen to most women.” She is supposed to find solace in “the commonness of female suffering” and move on.
Except, of course, suffering is inconveniently specific. In her case, the miscarriage has both happened and not happened. She learns that the baby stopped developing and was partially “reabsorbed” back into her body, but her body has not stopped being pregnant. The symptoms of pregnancy continue without the process itself: she still suffers the sickness, the sore breasts, the vivid and disturbing dreams. (“I’d had a baby as small as a religious figurine. It was a pale ivory deity the size of a cherry. It had an elephant’s snout.” And later, “I had been placed in a storage unit for women who couldn’t get pregnant.”)
Her two subsequent pregnancies are no smoother, no less surprising. One of the remarkable qualities of Reproduction is its way of showing the strangeness of medical procedures as they actually happen. After that first ultrasound, the nurse gives her a tissue to wipe her tears, but she needs a second tissue to clean off the K-Y jelly. Later, giving birth to a daughter, she undergoes excruciating pain because she initially refuses an epidural. The pain of childbirth, she had always believed, was natural, though she now realizes that the antibiotics and Pitocin and doctors and hospitals are just as artificial as anesthetic. The pain makes her think for a moment that her dog is more useful than her husband: “The dog, who did not try to help, who did not try to do anything to alleviate my suffering, but only huddled there with me, his whole body trembling.” The anesthesiologist, when he finally arrives, sings a “carefree little song” as he administers the injection.
Her third pregnancy pulls her into the bewildering world of rare medical conditions: terminology that she cannot possibly understand without looking it up online; online communities that function as “enormous, throbbing sinkholes of grief.” All this trying for a baby also comes with a literal price. Reproduction is a novel that tells you about the medical bills that arrive after a miscarriage. Eight thousand dollars in Montana, because even though the narrator has health insurance, she has to meet the deductible, which is eight thousand dollars. Ten dollars in Iowa, because of “the return of the copay once you’re no longer carrying a living baby,” she grimly notes.
The visceral and the political have a tendency to combine in terrifying new ways. Twice the narrator needs a D&C—a dilation and curettage, or surgical abortion to end the pregnancy safely. Without the procedure, the body may eventually discharge the remaining fetal tissue on its own, but there’s also a risk that it won’t and “the woman is forced to carry her empty egg sac for years.” The sac can harden over time into a “stone baby,” causing “lifelong infertility, or really, lifelong pregnancy.”
The precise years and locations of her particular crises take on an absurd significance. In 2018 in Montana and 2021 in Iowa, she gets the procedure. But in Texas, where she lived just a few years earlier, several women were recently denied a D&C and are suing the state for endangering their lives. She is acutely aware of the knife-edge quality of the changing law and the changing Supreme Court that—just months after the novel ends—will overturn Roe: as she prepares for the first procedure, she reads with weary disgust a magazine article about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
As much as the catastrophes and cruelty of 2018–2021 make each pregnancy feel riskier, they present a problem for the imagination. The narrator spends the Trump years and the pandemic immersed in the same news most readers spent the same years wading through. She is dimly aware at all times of awful new developments, but does not make much of them. Each item of actual news that enters the novel makes its atmosphere less, rather than more, real. She reads an article about ICE’s family separation policy; she sees “trucks with Trump bumper stickers, Confederate flags, white supremacist decals.” The tone is frequently glib, a performance of awareness rather than a fully formed thought about the horrors listed. On her trip to Vegas she suddenly remembers that her hotel is “the hotel where the shooter was staying who killed all those people at the country music festival.” “Every day, it seemed, there was a new mass shooting,” she remarks from a comfortable distance. “Every month, a Muslim ban was instated or overturned.”
Even the pervasive indications of climate crisis feel choreographed to show how firmly the narrator grasps the issue. In New York City the fall is so warm that the ginkgo leaves do not change color. In Pennsylvania the narrator sees a dead tree swarmed by crows at a motel—where coincidentally the TV is playing news about “the rallies in Charlottesville that had happened exactly one year before.” When she and her family enter Bozeman, the road into town is lined with firetrucks. The world is shifting beyond recognition, yet it can all be summed up in a wearily familiar list of the “looming threats of global warming, the murderous gangs of police, the school shootings, the endless wars, the restrictions on reproductive rights.” The subject headings are so familiar that it would take an extraordinary effort to render them newly disturbing.
Reproduction is not that effort. Its unnerving and haunting moments come mostly from its relatively few, scattered passages on the narrator’s fixation with Mary Shelley. She finds that parts of Shelley’s story “detached themselves from the page and clung to my life”—not just the loss of her daughter in 1815 or the vulnerability of Willmouse, who died at the age of three in 1819, but also the apocalyptic weather of the period, a parallel with the climate shocks of the present. The narrator’s interludes on Shelley allow her to conjure the dark summer of 1816, when Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Lord Byron stayed indoors with “candles lit, reading ghost stories and morbid poems.” The years Hall covers, “after the fall of the Napoleonic empire,” had their own political upheavals and their own pandemic, cholera.
For the narrator, in the first part of the novel, reading Shelley is an outlet for otherwise inexpressible grief. Shelley’s letters to Thomas Jefferson Hogg after the death of her daughter are strikingly spare. “My dearest Hogg my baby is dead,” she writes.
Will you come see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—it was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now.
Those last words later ring through the narrator’s own realization that her first pregnancy is over, and her stinging self-reproach for being “foolish” enough to identify with all those “other young mothers with various sizes of bellies” in the waiting room a moment earlier, given “the fact that I was no longer a mother.”
She begins to see Frankenstein as a story about the wish to bring a missing child back to life—as another version of the dream Shelley described after losing her daughter (“that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived”). In her introduction to Frankenstein, Shelley recalls forming the idea of a student who imparts the “slight spark of life” to a creature of “imperfect animation.” Rereading this after her D&C, the narrator observes that she, like Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, “had also conceived a creature of imperfect animation, a creature who…had subsided again into dead matter.” She understands Frankenstein as something like a newly bereaved mother who
goes to what he had once imagined was the cradle of life, and finds, instead, a transient existence: a creature not dead and not fully living…something one half step away from really living, and yet somehow all the more affecting.
In this reading, Frankenstein isn’t about the hubris of tinkering with life itself, but about the desperate longing for a child.
Perhaps the most touching thing about that reading is its willful selectivity. It ignores another line in Shelley’s introduction, where she writes that the student “would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade.” He wants the living being he has created to die—a feeling Hall’s narrator never shares. In her grief, she ignores the details that do not fit, though she also never quite runs with her chosen theory. “It was interesting. It was very interesting,” she thinks. And it is: the parts of Shelley’s biography that she relays are interesting, the letters and journal entries she quotes are eloquent and painful, but they do not quite combine with her own story or anything else. She manages to complete a draft of the “novel about Mary Shelley” but concludes that it “wasn’t a very good novel” and throws it away.
As much as Reproduction is about pregnancy, it’s also about the limits of a certain genre of storytelling. The first part progresses like a novel by Zambreno or Sheila Heti. There is a plot in the loose sense that the narrator has an ultimate goal (in this case, giving birth to a child), but Hall has little use for suspense, direct dialogue, or any number of other devices for building narrative tension. In a style that mixes essayistic reflection with journalistic observation, the narrator often reports on books she has recently read, the results of “research rabbit holes” she has gone down, or discussions about genre she has had in class. A book like this stands or falls on the narrator’s voice and the quality of her thoughts and judgments, a performance that Heti and Zambreno have an unusual ability to sustain; Reproduction is a heavier book that often aims for emotional force (“I am no longer a mother now”) rather than arresting ideas.
The first time Reproduction builds momentum is in its novella-like final section (titled “Science Fiction, 2021”), which attempts a more conventional, propulsive narrative. Anna, a friend from the narrator’s past life in Austin (about which we know little except that it was a long time ago and there was an unhappy marriage), appears in Iowa City, where the narrator now lives. Anna is something of a mystery. She and the narrator have spent several wine-soaked confessional evenings together without growing any closer: “She seemed somewhat stoned, and often she was, so you never felt as though you really knew her.” Anna is a scientist—a different species from this writer who spends all day thinking about another writer.
The more immediate mystery is why Anna wants to meet and why the narrator has agreed to the meeting, since she doesn’t really like Anna and has lost the habit of socializing amid her pregnancy attempts, her moves, and pandemic isolation. (It’s also the first time that her own actions are mysterious to her and that her own motivations—rather than her suffering—are examined.) These questions are not especially original, but they pull the narrator out of her looping, introspective mode. The prospect of seeing Anna again gets her to “brush up old habits, to recall old ways of telling stories: the little plots, scenes, and dialogue. The settings, the sprawling casts of characters.” Before the two women even meet, the narrator has built up a fuller portrait of Anna than of any other character in the novel—including herself. Anna has a past—a detailed and volatile romantic history; a career linked to specific skills and ambitions; episodes of caginess and vulnerability—all of which the narrator mulls over as she tries to imagine this latest version of Anna and to work out why she has appeared again.
Anna, it turns out, wants the same thing as the narrator. She’s in her forties, has no partner, has tried for a baby unsuccessfully, and is determined at last to make it happen. Her attempts to conceive do not at first appear to be out of the ordinary. She freezes embryos. She picks out a sperm donor and jokes with the narrator about the quirks of the process: the agencies don’t release photos of the donors as adults, but they do release old photos from their childhood, so the women find themselves staring at “a serious-looking boy” posed in front of the marbled background of a school photo.
Despite this section’s title, only slowly do we realize that Anna has actually entered the realm of science fiction. Like Frankenstein, she has access to her own lab. She is a leading researcher in the field of gene editing. She begins to proselytize about engineering embryos to make them “invulnerable to risk.” And though she is supposed to be carrying out experiments on mice, she has also been using the facilities to store her own embryos, transporting them via the “service they used to transport frozen mouse embryos.” Doctors had told her that her embryos were not viable. But she proves them wrong.
A rogue pregnancy, however, has its own challenges. Anna does not dare see the doctor for a checkup; what if the sonogram shows something has gone horribly awry? She is terrified of being discovered and sent to jail. The fate of the Chinese scientist He Jiankui—who genetically modified the embryos of twin girls and was sentenced to three years in prison—hangs over her. One of the most gripping and most sci-fi scenes in the novel results from this dilemma, when the two women enter Anna’s lab at night to perform a secret ultrasound, repurposing a machine usually used on animal research subjects. The experiment is a personal risk for Anna as well as an imaginative risk for the novel, just stretching the bounds of plausibility. It’s not so much a vision of reproductive freedom as of one woman’s bid for freedom and the extreme, irreplicable measures it would take.
The strangeness of this novel, however, lies also in the narrative limits it doesn’t address. Though its two parts operate in different genres, they share a focus: the narrator rarely takes interest or sees value in anything beyond motherhood. It’s unexpectedly deflating when she sees Anna for the last time, near the end of the novel, and neatly concludes that her successful pregnancy has somehow canceled out all the difficulties of her life up to this point: “Her pregnancy had released her from all that. It had allowed her to set sail, it would give her a chance to start afresh on a new planet.” Would it? And, after all she’s done to get to this point, all her diligence and lawbreaking, would a clean break from the past even be desirable?
How much of this is the novelist’s view versus the character’s? The narrator’s experience has left her feeling “empty” without a child. She repeatedly describes “a hollowness, an emptiness, that I now carried within me: one that, perhaps, could only be filled by a creature.” But her experience soon becomes a view of the world. She used to take offense at the suggestion that there was a link between women’s writing and pregnancy. “Must the experience of womanhood…entail carrying a baby?” she remembers thinking after one man’s rude comment. Yet later, “in those weeks after my release from the hospital, I began to feel that perhaps he was correct.”
Her reading of Shelley certainly follows from this view. Hall presents Shelley as a figure of pity, not only because she lost three children but because her own mother, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, died of sepsis eleven days after giving birth to her. For Hall’s purposes Shelley is “a motherless girl…disowned by her father, when she gave birth for the first time,” and a lonely waif “at seventeen, giving birth to her first baby, later leaving the continent with no one but a little dog.” These passages struck me as a bizarre miniaturization of one of the great writers and mythmakers of her age. Shelley was raised by her father, the philosopher William Godwin, and she identifies herself in the introduction to Frankenstein as “the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity”—a writer of steely ambition, intent on matching her parents’ accomplishments.
To cast Shelley as a bereft teenager is to set aside most of her writings, her intellectual milieu, and much of the significant writing about her. It was, in fact, the feminist critic Ellen Moers who five decades ago in these pages proposed the link between Shelley’s pregnancies and the germ of Frankenstein.2 In Moers’s reading, Frankenstein’s revulsion at his monster is a glimpse of a mother’s postnatal revulsion toward her newborn, which Shelley was uniquely positioned to know, as one of the vanishingly few writers of her time who had borne children. Moers’s essay doesn’t aim to reduce the novel to its echoes of motherhood, but to establish a tradition of writing by mothers that had previously been overlooked; it was an attempt to find in Shelley a source of creative possibility.
Ellen Moers doesn’t appear in Reproduction (though the novel does cite other writers, such as Elaine Scarry, by name). The narrator works through her reading of Shelley alone, as if she were the first to have seen the connection. It’s a loop in her own thoughts rather than a conversation among readers across the decades. That absence may be fitting for a novel that so effectively conveys the isolation that can accompany conception and pregnancy. But it also left me with the impression that mothers—and those who choose not to become mothers—require a fuller world than this.