O’Brien accomplishes an extraordinary feat in this novel, avoiding the pitfalls of what might have been a maudlin exercise. She writes a small gem of human experience, her protagonist navigating a profound loss and the restoration of a broken heart.
Hillary, a young unwed mother, is forced to give up her child for adoption. Her older brother’s death a few years earlier in a senseless fraternity prank completely devastated the family. Her parents unable to discuss the tragedy with their growing daughter, Hillary resorts to teenaged rebellion and finds herself pregnant at sixteen.
The baby’s father is incapable of dealing with Hillary’s condition, hiding behind his increasing drug use. Hillary’s grieving parents cannot face the thought of raising another child, pressuring her to go to a home for unwed mothers and give the child up for adoption. Hillary’s mother offers no consolation, the wound of her dead son an anchor she carries through her days: “She was holding death and it filled her; it blew her up wide.”
In 1981, it is still common practice for young women to reside in homes dedicated to bringing pregnancies to term, the mothers giving up their children immediately after birth. Because of her age, Hillary literally has no choice but to cooperate, bearing the months stoically until the time of her son’s birth. Her sole consolation is choosing the birth parents and having the option of contact then the child reaches eighteen.
Hillary chooses a woman named Lola, a larger-than-life artist with a kind heart who empathizes with the girl’s dilemma and offers to write every year with pictures of the baby’s development. The letters, coupled with the opportunity to meet her son in the future, are the slender threads Hillary clings to in a future devoid of her baby.
While painful, the birth fades in comparison to the excruciating sense of loss Hilary endures when relinquishing her baby boy: “I could not get warm without wrapping myself around my baby.”
Although Hillary finishes high school and attends college, the relationship with her parents is badly damaged. Hillary lives alone on the coast of Maine and avoids entanglements, waiting for the yearly pictures as her son grows from infant to young man. Love, career, relationships - all fade from lack of interest.
When her son reaches his maturity and a relationship is finally possible, Hillary is faced with a new set of challenges, frightened of confronting the long, lost years of their separation, hoping to convince her son she has always loved him.
From victim to survivor, Hillary is unerringly believable, poignant and fresh, the consequences of her rebellion enormous, a lifetime of living with grief. An aching sense of loss becomes a paean to motherhood, whether the adoptive mother, who must substitute for another, or the b-mother, who has relinquished her most precious possession: her child.