Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Unanswered Questions: A Review of The Unfinished Child

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The Unfinished Child
Theresa Shea
Brindle and Glass, 2013; $19.95

Theresa Shea’s [booklink isbn="192736602X" title="The Unfinished Child"] is a novel about women, friendship, and family, but the author has a lot more on her mind. Despite its quiet Edmonton setting and its close-up scenes—in doctors’ offices, at kitchen tables and cafés—it’s also an ambitious book, exploring the intersections of pregnancy, technology, abortion, disability, and family. But the book’s writing is not always equal to its ambitions.

The novel braids together two plotlines. The first, set in 2002, is the story of a friendship in crisis. Marie and Elizabeth, best friends since childhood, are lost in early middle age: for Marie, both child-rearing and marriage have become dully routine, while Elizabeth, despite years of IVF treatment, is bitterly childless. When Marie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, then learns the fetus has Down syndrome, the already-frayed friendship begins to tear apart. The second plotline, set in 1947, also turns on Down syndrome: young wife Margaret’s first child is born with Down syndrome. On doctor’s advice, she consigns her daughter to an institution, secretly visiting her every month thereafter.

Does the book succeed as a novel? The answer is decidedly mixed. To be sure, there’s a lot to like about Shea’s writing. The narration, at its best, is quiet and restrained, and yet that quiet voice ventures into difficult territory: a horrific institutional setting, Margaret's rape as a teenager, a fracturing marriage. In these moments, the book’s understatement magnifies the book’s emotional power, and Shea’s talent for the apt image shines through. In an early scene, for example, Margaret sees her rapist in town:

She'd turned the corner from the post office and there he was, sitting in the shade outside the general store, sipping a cold soda straight from the bottle, looking cool as could be in a linen shirt white as gauze over a wound.

In a provocative move, Shea later links Margaret’s shame at having been raped to her shame at surrendering her infant: “six months of not loving her daughter was a greater shame even than this [rape].” That connection in Margaret’s mind illuminates her oppression, and the way she internalizes it.

At other times, though, the prose belabors the obvious. After Margaret’s first visit to the institution, where she finds her daughter almost unresponsive and the place horrific, she rides home on the bus:

Margaret rested her forehead against the cool window and stared flatly out at the tilled farm fields that now looked ravaged. She saw a falcon dive low over the ground and pull up with something struggling in its claws; she could relate to the small animal caught in a grip far stronger than its own.

Even without the explanation, the falcon too conveniently illustrates her state of mind.

The present-day plotline is similarly divided. In a scene set in a café, where Marie confesses to Elizabeth her agonized conflict over a prospective abortion, Shea believably links the novel’s themes to a woman in crisis:

“The tests are there, and it’s so hard not to have them. I know this is going to sound like I'm romanticizing the past, but I envy our mothers that they didn't have to decide whether to know or not . . . . There was no deciding if the baby was good enough or not. They waited nine months and kept their fingers crossed.”

The book’s second plotline offers context: given Shea’s portrait of the institution, we know that Marie is romanticizing the past. In this moment, a character’s turning point merges seamlessly with the questions Shea wants to raise. And yet, in the next chapter, as Marie drives home from the coffee shop, her delicately rendered point of view is squashed by authorial comment: “This decision was likely going to be the biggest turning point of her life. She would need to live with herself afterwards, no matter what action she decided to take.” (In the same vein, explanations of medical topics often feel inserted, not organic with the story. Doctors helpfully offer recent histories of Down syndrome treatment, or boilerplate explanations of testing. Though these provide necessary context, they feel like Wikipedia intrusions into the novel’s world.)

Shea's novel dramatizes the idea that women are, in the sociologist Rayna Rapp’s phrase, “moral pioneers”: the choices offered by reproductive technology require women to figure out their values, as well as how to act on them. Shea’s view of those issues offers welcome nuance and historical context, noting the shift in doctors’ attitudes toward Down syndrome, the shift away from institutionalization, and the way technological options now pervade reproduction. In the world of [booklink isbn="192736602X" title="The Unfinished Child"], technology creates problems as well as solving them: for both Marie (amniocentesis) and Elizabeth (IVF), technology is at best a mixed benefit. Being a pioneer is hard work.

Shea’s illumination of these issues—nondoctrinaire, open-minded, subtle—is more than welcome. Situating these issues in story illustrates complexity without preaching. Yet, her account of those issues has a gaping absence. Though Down syndrome is central to the plot—indeed, it is the central link between the two plotlines—the book does not have a significantly developed character with Down syndrome. Carolyn, the child given away, is impaired severely by her time at the institution, so she functions more as a plot engine than a character. She is sweet and innocent and associated with roses, she illuminates the horribleness of the institution where she is imprisoned, and her existence raises questions and changes lives; but she is someone to challenge and motivate the normal people, not a someone in herself. The contemporary narrative also lacks any character with Down syndrome; they are, at most, extras in a doctor’s waiting room. So, in an odd way, this book, although clearly sympathetic to those with Down syndrome and deeply aware of the ways our social assumptions influence their prospects, winds up reproducing a troubling invisibility and reinforcing the idea that “they” only matter insofar as “they” affect us. (For an instructive comparison, see Kim Edwards’ [booklink isbn="0143037145" title="The Memory Keeper's Daughter"], which spans a similar time period and poses a parallel blend of Down syndrome, family, and the power of secrets. But it also has a believable adult character with Down syndrome.)

[booklink isbn="192736602X" title="The Unfinished Child"] is really a book about information: how it is delivered, whether it is delivered, when and why. To sustain their friendship, Marie and Elizabeth must negotiate secrets, unspoken facts, words that can’t be taken back. But they must also make sense of medical information. Marie’s pregnancy, Elizabeth’s infertility, their various connections to Down syndrome and medical technology, and their mysterious link to Margaret, two generations before: all this, at its best, is strongly rendered. But the book left me wanting more.

George Estreich is the author of Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, a volume of poetry, and The Shape of the Eye, a memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome. Originally published by SMU Press,The Shape of the Eye won the 2012 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was recently released in paperback by Tarcher/Penguin. Estreich’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Oregonian, Superstition Review, Eureka Street, and elsewhere. He is a regular contributor to Biopolitical Timesand can be found online at

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Hmmm. I'm not sure that I agree with you, George, that the absence of a fully developed character with Down syndrome in the book takes away from the story at all. I'm not sure what, exactly, a fully developed character with Down syndrome would have added to the story. The story, after all, isn't really about Down syndrome. It's about reproductive technology and choices, and it poses the question "Has the advancement of reproductive and maternal technology and the resultant choices available improved lives?" The answer is certainly a mixed one, but I think this story superbly illustrates the complexities of that question. Truthfully, and at the risk of sounding sexist, I do think that as a woman whose proximity to pregnancy, birth, and reproductive technology and choices has been much more intimate than any man's can ever be, the book struck a different chord for me than perhaps it did for you. I also think that this book's main audience will be women, so I can't help but wonder if a woman reviewer might have felt differently about the book. In any case, I feel that this book is a pivotal one in the Down syndrome literary landscape.
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