THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Memoir allows her to share what she can't say aloud

Author Elizabeth McCracken writes about losing a child. Author Elizabeth McCracken writes about losing a child. (THOMAS LANGDON)
By Amy Kroin
October 31, 2008
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AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION
By Elizabeth McCracken
Little, Brown, 184 pp., $19.99

Years before enduring a stillbirth toward the very end of her ninth month of pregnancy, writer Elizabeth McCracken met a grieving mother who encouraged her to write a book about "the lighter side of losing a child." The very notion unsettled McCracken, who couldn't imagine what this woman was envisioning: a joke book? A comic strip? A how-to guide on finding the silver lining in personal catastrophe? After she lost her own child and decided to chronicle the experience, McCracken came to understand what this fellow mother craved - "permission to remember her child with pleasure instead of grief."

"An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination," the author hastens to note, is not the book this bereaved parent requested. There is nothing lighthearted about this memoir. McCracken refuses to make death neat, comprehensible, or Hallmark-y; she refuses to traffic in all the familiar platitudes. She doesn't believe that everything happens for a reason, that time heals all wounds, that the child she never knew is now at peace. Instead McCracken gropes with understanding how this death has defined her and her conception of family.

The author of the novels "The Giant's House" and "Niagara Falls All Over Again," McCracken tackles her difficult subject here in all its complexity. This beautifully written book shifts between past and present, with the story of the stillbirth overlapping a more hopeful narrative: the story of her second pregnancy. She traces the differences between her two pregnancies: the first time out, she and her husband trumpeted the news to everyone they encountered; the second time they conceived, they kept the pregnancy quiet and refused to engage in any of the superstitious behavior - knocking on wood, wishing on stars, picking up pennies - that had failed to offer any protection to their first child. A cultural divide separates the two pregnancies as well. The first takes place in the care of midwives in the French countryside; the second occurs in America, where McCracken, as a high-risk patient, is monitored to within an inch of her life.

After her second baby is born healthy, McCracken finds herself unable to devise an acceptable answer when strangers ask if this child is her first. In a culture fixated on every celebrity birth, in which the very experience of pregnancy has become a status symbol in certain upscale circles, there is no simple way to acknowledge an experience like McCracken's. She recalls an encounter with a subway panhandler brandishing a card stating "I Am Deaf" and longs for her own card, one that would read "My first child was stillborn." "I want people to know," she writes, "but I don't want to say it aloud."

"An Exact Replica" is a slender yet fully realized book - an all-too-welcome achievement in an era when most memoirs arrive stuffed to the gills with all manner of tawdry confessions and personal laundry lists. Buoyed by McCracken's evocative prose, it doesn't read like an elegy, in spite of its subject matter. The book is, on the one hand, an incisive look at grief and the terrible weight of memory. But it's also a love story - a paean to McCracken's husband and both of their children.

In the end, McCracken embraces the contradictions of her experience, concluding: "It's a happy life, but someone is missing. It's a happy life, and someone is missing. It's a happy life -"

Amy Kroin's reviews have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications.

BOOK REVIEW

AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION By Elizabeth McCracken

Little, Brown, 184 pp., $19.99

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