Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review: MY NOTORIOUS LIFE by Kate Manning

Book Review:  MY NOTORIOUS LIFE by Kate Manning
Scribner Books, September 10, 2013  ISBN:  978-1-451698077 (Kindle edition)
Scribner Books, August 15, 2014 (trade paperback edition)

This is a masterful piece of historical fiction in which Manning examines the life of Axie Muldoon, the daughter of Irish immigrants who resides in the slums of lower Manhattan in the mid-19th Century.  After her widowed mother suffers a terrible accident, Axie does what she can to keep the rest of her family  (her younger sister and baby brother) intact, but, as a child herself, she is unable to do so.  Her mother returns from the hospital, and Axie finds a few months of happiness in their squalid tenement with her.  Yet, a few months later, tragedy strikes again, and Axie ends up as a maid servant in the household of a married couple who help women through giving birth, as well as with the prevention and early terminations of pregnancies.

Axie soon becomes apprenticed to the wife, and learns how to become an excellent midwife, determined not to allow her women patients suffer from the horrors of unwanted pregnancies, bad childbirth and postpartum complications.  She grows up to be a fine, strong, and very wealthy woman with a sexy, headstrong husband.  When Axie becomes a mother,  her career choice constantly puts her in danger of losing her own family since her profession is considered immoral and illegal.

Kate Manning captures the courage of Axie Muldoon while, with equal valor, she tackles the issue of women's reproductive rights, an issue which is still as topical, political and controversial as it was one-hundred-fifty years ago.  The exploration of themes of family, poverty, and choice are very relevant, and heartwrenching.  Manning's rendition of this particular place and time is sumptuous in style and in detail. Her ear for dialogue is superb.  She sustains the dramatic action and tension from the first page to the last.  MY NOTORIOUS LIFE is an exceptional novel with an inimitable heroine, and recommended as a summer read for people who are smart and informed and love great fiction.

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