There’s a single issue that splits Americans into two non-communicative camps, and that is abortion. No amount of engagement, either rationally or emotionally, seems to bring folks to the table, much less find common ground. But stories are magic.
This is a huge story (700+ pages), but it moves fast thru bleak territory. It starts with two families on opposite sides of the abortion issue: one father is a pro-life activist, the other father is a doctor who works at a women’s clinic and sometimes performs abortions. So, it starts with the men and a tragic encounter between the two. Then it follows the women, mostly the two men’s daughters, who are the heart of the novel, through a twelve year aftermath. In some places, there is the seeming irreparability of grief, in other places, unexpected healing. Like the issue itself, this novel is not about abortion; it’s about people and relationships.
Obviously, I can’t say Ms. Oates has some sort of agenda; she is unbelievably prolific in an array of genres and subjects. I don’t know anything about her as a person. You don’t need to have an agenda with a story, though. If you just tell it, sympathetically, truthfully, it does what is maybe the most important thing fiction can do: it humanizes. It puts you in someone else’s shoes. She writes so closely to the thoughts of her characters, you can’t help but connect with them, whether or not you even like them – and often you will not. Reflecting on this story from the end gave me the urgent feeling that there is no way forward but to forgive and love people whom you have reason to hate.