The Birth of Love

Wondrous Words Wednesday!     

Thoughts    The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company 2010, 304 pages.

Fiction selection for Citizen Reader’s Book Menage May 23, along with nonfiction The Doctors’ Plague, which I posted on just prior to this.


THE MOON.  “The year is 1865 and Ignaz Semmelweis is dragged along the corridor though he struggles violently, kicks and shouts.”

THE TOWER.  “The year is 2153 and Prisoner 730004 is forced into a cell.”

THE EMPRESS.  “The year is 2009 and Brigid feels the birthing pains deep within her and knows it has begun.”

THE HERMIT.  “For years he had failed and failed again; he had been disappointed a hundred times and then he had the book in his hand.”

OOoooh  goodness.    Four different story lines from three different time periods weave together a tale of love, pain, guilt, misunderstandings, confusion, regret and finally, wonder.

I read most of the present day birthing scene parts while traveling on Mother’s Day; I really felt the significance. I won’t debate how authentic or realistic, though I have seen some reviews that say it isn’t – – how can anyone really question another’s experience anyway? I thought the writing in the EMPRESS section was vivid and emotional charged.

In fact, I thought the writing was spectacular in many ways in every section. The construction at the end, when each storyline was only a paragraph and we rapidly switched from one to the next, was fabulous and quite effective. The pacing here was intense.

However. I did end up with questions. I was not convinced with the future timeline events and connections. I am eagerly awaiting the discussion scheduled for next week and why I had to write and post this review now versus later. I have been reading other reviews (see a few links at the end of this post) and most have been favorable and pointing out themes and issues that somehow make sense to me now but I missed while reading.    Hand slap to forehead, but that is me.

Perhaps because I had read the nonfiction selection on Semmelweis first, I was very interested in this part particularly.   Also, the HERMIT storyline was wonderful – this was my favorite part which seems to put me in the minority.   Some book blurbs don’t even mention this 4th ‘story ‘ – it was about a guy who had given up living in order to write and finally after many years, he has a book (the Semmelweis storyline!) published and is feted around town.   I was captivated by his discomfort with success when it had been his goal for so long.   I thought Kavenna brilliantly portrayed his stress in conversation and setting.    And yet, I didn’t quite relate to the parts about him being desperate to reconnect with his mother – I felt it was more a flight option/excuse to get out of the parties in his honor than a new realization of his love for mommy.   Yet this was likely the connecting theme to the other stories.

Does this mean that I enjoyed the action and thought processes of the characters more than their motivations?   I somehow glossed over the mother-child love connection theme that threaded through each story.     I really missed it on the future timeline thing and felt clubbed a bit for the obvious links provided and yet then wondered, “Hey, WTH?! ”

“She kissed him and held him to her, whispering in his ear, telling him how precious he was and how much she loved him. Though she felt spiky and savage within, she never doubted that she loved her son  Her love was infinite; she sensed that there was a deep infinite core of love, and then a lesser love, her surface emotion, where everything got sullied by quotidian demands, and mingled with guilt.”  p.50

Any bookclubbers looking for a highly discussable book would not do wrong by selecting The Birth of Love.   I am putting Joanna Kavenna on my author-to-watch list.    The more I think about this book, the more I am impressed.

You still have time to read this before next week’s discussions!     Visit or come back here, I will link up to each batch of questions/discussions as they unfold.

OTHER REVIEWS:   Savidge Reads, Farmlane Books, Nomadreader, link to Fyrefly’s BookBlog Search Results for this title.

p.28 – traduced – speak badly of or tell lies about (someone) so as to damage their reputation.
p.36 – malefactor – a person who commits a crime or some other wrong.
p.49 – augury – a sign of what will happen in the future; an omen.
p.57 – charnel house – associated with death.
p.60 – unguent – “…her hair newly dyed, skin creamed with some expensive unguent, her jewelry sparkling…” – a soft greasy or viscous substance (I thought this word totally disrupted the imagery of the rest of the sentence; perhaps it was supposed to.)


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27 thoughts on “The Birth of Love

  1. I agree with you about the birth scenes – every mother’s experience is different. I’m not sure the book is for me. The only word I knew was malefactor – the rest were new to me.

  2. You make it sound interesting, I’ll have to check it out!
    As for words, I knew three of them (BTW, unguent almost means cream, so I don’t see how it disrupted the rest. I guess you found a definition that hints towards negatives, but it is not necessarily so). I found “traduced” interesting, as it comes from the same root that gives the words for “translator” in Romanic languages. (I may be over-sensitive, though).

    1. oh, it’s not the definition of unguent that bothers me – it’s the unpleasant (to me) SOUND of the word. Too ugly and heavy, when the image is one of exquisiteness.

      I don’t think you are over-sensitive; We all have things that bother or provoke or inspire, and that is all good.

      1. Oh, sorry, now I understand. And yet I would never say that “unguent” has a heavy sound… which goes to demonstrate exactly what you said: we all have things that bother us (and things that don’t). Thank you for sharing.

  3. I’m not sure that this is a book for my TBR pile, but there are some great words from it.

    I have not heard ‘Traduced’ before, but it’s certainly a word that can be dropped into a conversation quite easily!!

  4. I loved this book and think it is a perfect choice for a discussion. I thought that the modern birth scene was very realistic. It isn’t how everyone gives birth, but I’m sure that many people will have experiences very similar to that in the book.

    I really hope that the future section doesn’t come true, but there were certain aspects I can see happening. I found it all quite scary and thought provoking.

    I hope I’ll be able to catch your discussion next week 🙂

    1. The Book Menage always has stimulating and interesting conversations. I hope you can join in – your review is excellent.

  5. Was this longlisted possibly for the Orange Prize? I think this came on my radar then I was really intrigued by it. I agree, this does sound like I one I should suggest to my bookclub!

    1. Yes, I forgot that. I do think it was on the Orange Prize list AND that the author has won some kind of Orange offshoot prize. eek – I will go look and add.

      1. Who can resist trying all the many genres this covers? SciFi, Historical Fiction, Contemporary Lit, Women’s Lit, etc.

  6. Great review! I’m definitely keen to read this one now. I don’t usually read much scifi, but I love the way it is presented here!

  7. “…how can anyone really question another’s experience anyway?” Yes, such a good question! I’ve often wondered why people do that. And often gotten quite irked over those, “Well, that’s not how it was for me, so I just don’t buy it” type attitudes.

    1. True, true. This one is presented extremely well; the mother wants to deliver naturally after her first kid was delivered by C-section.

  8. I’m with you on unguent…such an unpleasant sounding word. Kind of reminds me of ruminant.

    Anyhoosie, I was thinking this book sounded kind of interesting, then the word quotidian popped up in that excerpt. And since I was traumatized by overuse of the word in another book, whenever I see it now it makes me want to run away screaming. Which is an awful reason for not wanting to read a book anymore, but hey, I’ve got to cull the list somehow.

  9. This book is already on my tbr list but I think I need to push it up near the top after reading your wonderful review! I like how you added the words you didn’t know at the end.

    1. About half the time, I keep track of words I don’t know. And about half of those times, I add them to my post. Glad you liked my vocabulary lesson – try to use one or two of the words in a sentence today, ok?

  10. I hate the sound of the word “unguent”, too.

    I’m dismayed that you changed your header pic, already! Kidding, I really like the new one. Very pretty colors. Is that new? Are your tulips just now blooming?

    And, since I’m pummeling you with questions . . . Was it Mountains Beyond Mountains that you mentioned to Cindi as your favorite Tracy Kidder novel? ‘Cause, I just bought a copy. I found it for 3 bucks and crossed my fingers it was the right title, as I snatched it off the shelf.

    1. Nancy, yes, my awesome dark purple tulips are in full bloom right now. WP now has a random header photo generator but I uploaded one I didn’t like so now I’ve messed it all up until I can figure out out to get the yucky one to go away.

      and YES! Mtns beyond Mtns is one of the best Kidder books. I liked House a lot, too.

  11. I agree: this would make a terrific choice to discuss in a bookgroup. The story has so many facets — and each of the segments is told so vividly — that there will be something for every reader to respond to. It sounds like you enjoyed it a little more than I did overall, but I agree it’s very readable and I’ve found it easy to recommend to a number of reading friends!

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