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A widely acclaimed young writer’s fierce new novel, in which childbirth and new motherhood are as high stakes a proving ground as any combat zone
A year has passed since Ari gave birth to Walker, though it went so badly awry she has trouble calling it “birth” and still she can't locate herself in her altered universe. Amid the strange, disjointed rhythms of her days and nights and another impending winter in upstate New York, Ari is a tree...
A widely acclaimed young writer’s fierce new novel, in which childbirth and new motherhood are as high stakes a proving ground as any combat zone
A year has passed since Ari gave birth to Walker, though it went so badly awry she has trouble calling it “birth” and still she can't locate herself in her altered universe. Amid the strange, disjointed rhythms of her days and nights and another impending winter in upstate New York, Ari is a tree without roots, struggling to keep her branches aloft.
When Mina, a one-time cult musician — older, self-contained, alone, and nine-months pregnant —moves to town, Ari sees the possibility of a new friend, despite her unfortunate habit of generally mistrusting women. Soon they become comrades-in-arms, and the previously hostile terrain seems almost navigable.
With piercing insight, purifying anger, and outrageous humor, Elisa Albert issues a wake-up call to a culture that turns its new mothers into exiles, and expects them to act like natives. Like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Anne Enright’s The Gathering, this is a daring and resonant novel from one of our most visceral writers.
“In its unremitting coarseness and ferocity, her language takes the sentimental platitudes that all mothers are fed (lies!) and spits them back with purifying fury.”
—The Washington Post
"Albert has given us a portrait of modern motherhood that will provide insight for some and provoke others. For others still, in its quieter moments, as it reaches for an honest way to talk about birth, it will be like that big old bell ringing in them, a reading process of recognition and reunion."
"After Birth roars with the anger of betrayal. Albert is abrasive and sharp, intelligent and painfully real. There is no room for gentleness in her novel, no time to waste looking for a kinder way of speaking. [It's] looking for a fight, it’s unladylike, it’s pissed off, and it’s going to tear everything you thought about birth and motherhood to shreds."
—Jeva Lange, Electric Literature
"Albert [has a] light touch, comic timing, and [an] ability to move effortlessly between registers...After Birth is a political novel, and a feminist novel. It’s full of anger and frustration and heartache. It is also hilarious and entertaining...fresh and daring."
—Alexis Nelson, The Los Angeles Review of Books
"Anyone who's just had a baby absolutely needs to read this."
—Emily Gould, Paste Magazine
"I am helpless with love for Elisa Albert’s work. Something about her voice and her style, not to mention her subject matter, just does it for me in a way no one else’s books do, and I’ve been salivating for years for her to come out with another one...Albert is great on the darkness at the heart of all kinds of hallowed intimacies, and even when you’re gasping, appalled by the narrator’s pinched, cruel worldview, you’ll never stop reading."
—Emily Gould, The Millions
"As sharp as a fresh-cut diamond...Bright, angry, very funny, diving into uncomfortable truths about the female body and female behavior, this novel has it all."
—Flavorwire, "10 Must Read Books for February"
"Albert turns her now-trademark dark humor and merciless lens on the first chapters of life from the perspective of a new mother, and the result is a perfect balance of light and dark...[Her] writing excels."
"In lesser hands, Ari might be unlikable, but Albert imbues her with searing honesty and dark humor, and the result is a fascinating protagonist for this rich novel."
"After Birth is a voluptuous, hilarious, scaldingly and exhilaratingly honest account of new motherhood, emotional exile, and the complex romance of female friendship. I'm a huge Elisa Albert fan, and in her latest she has perfected a tonal pivot that whips the reader from laughter to revelation in a sentence."
—Karen Russell, author of Sleep Donation and Swamplandia!
"A deep, funny novel about the terrors and exhilarations of love in all its forms. Elisa Albert writes with startling clarity and furious wit about marriage, motherhood and friendship, illuminating these familiar landscapes with lightning flashes of revelation."
—Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation
"After Birth is a fast-talking, opinionated, moody, funny, and slightly desperate account of the attempt to recover from having a baby. It is a romp through dangerous waters, in which passages of hilarity are shadowed by the dark nights of earliest motherhood, those months so tremulous with both new love and the despairing loss of one's identity—to read it is an absorbing, entertaining, and thought-provoking experience."
—Lydia Davis, author of Can't and Won't
"Bukowski wrote that he preferred people who scream when they burn, and nobody burns, or screams, like Elisa Albert—a fiercely intelligent, dark and funny woman unafraid of her own anger."
—Shalom Auslander, author of Hope: A Tragedy
“Darkly funny and impossibly wise, Elisa Albert creates a visceral sense of entrapment, a spot-on account of life as a woman. After Birth is dangerous, gripping, and essential—The Bell Jar of our time."—Diana Spechler, author of Skinny
"Ari is the profane, generous, poetic, desperate, loving, terrified best friend we all hope for. Sleep-deprived and thrumming with the electricity of new motherhood, she stumbles upon pockets of community and support in places expected and unexpected that cut through her small-town isolation and the clutch of post-partum depression. Elisa Albert wields humor like a blade in relaying Ari’s thoughts, and is a master of conveying the gorgeous struggle of birth and all that comes after."
—Katie Presley, BookPeople, Austin, TX
"WOW! Albert's novel rips the lid off what it is really like to be a new mother in today's United States. Ari, our narrator, is the mother of a 1 year old boy, and she is still having trouble settling into or even defining the role of "mother." Giving birth by C-section makes her feel like a failure, and the snide comments made about breast-feeding by her husband's colleagues at faculty events inspire homicidal thoughts. Not so much a novel as a hyper-articulate rant about society's commodification of childbirth and maternity, After Birth will have mothers (and others) talking long after they've finished this provocative call to arms."
—Susan Taylor, Market Block Books, Troy, NY
"Albert says everything women think, but don't say, unless they are speaking to their best friend. I laughed out loud. A lot. As a mother of two, I loved how she explored this time, after the birth of a first child, with bare-bulbed honesty and an acerbic wit that gave way to humor around nearly every turn. This is the first book I've read that does this after birth period justice, and I've already recommended it to new, as well as more established, mothers."
—Michaela Carter, Peregrine Book Company, Prescott, AZ
"With honesty, wit and a cool eye Elisa Albert reveals the day-to-day lonely howl of new motherhood in "After Birth". Where is the community of women that might empower and support a new mom? This is a book that I would like to put in the hands of all mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends who ask this questions and say, 'Right in here.'"
—Jacqueline Kellachan, The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, VT
"After Birth is a literary manifesto of modern motherhood - of the struggles women face without the communal support and traditional wisdom that women received before the onset of modern obstetrics. It is about the ways in which women choose to embrace one another or tear each other down. Narrated by Ari, a woman whose own mother was cold and distant and died young, has no women to turn to after her son is born by C-section and she finds herself living in an unfamiliar body and an unfamiliar life. Ari's voice is strong and fearless, even in her most vulnerable moments. She grabs hold of the reader, demands to be heard."
—Sandy Scott, Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, VT
The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town.
Late eighteenth-century row houses. Dirt-basement Colonial wonders. High-ceilinged Victorians. Clapboards. Wood stoves, crappy plumbing, gracious proportions. Faded grandeur, semi-rot. Clawfoot bathtubs with old brass fixtures rusty as hell. Here and there the odd sparkling restoration. Someone’s nouveau riche marble kitchen.
Here’s my favorite: four-story brick, three windows wide, with a Historical Society Landmark plaque. Built in 1868. Elaborate molding painted many shades of green. My friends Crispin and Jerry spent the better part of ten years rehabbing it. They’re on sabbatical this year in Rome, those bastards. They sublet to this amazing poet with a visiting gig at the college. Mina Morris. I’m a little obsessed with her, by which I mean a lot, which I guess is what obsessed means.
The parlor curtains are open and the lights are off.
I drove Crisp and Jer to the airport, and Crisp handed me an estate-sale mother-of-pearl cigarette case perfectly filled with nine meticulously rolled joints.
I teared up.
Medicine man, please don’t go.
Listen. He lifted my chin and met my eyes in this avuncular way he has. You’ve come a long way. You’re going to be fine. He said it slowly, like I might be very old, very stupid, or both.
I have five joints left.
The baby’s first birthday approaches. Still, there are bad days. Today’s not so bad. Today I have fulfilled two imperatives: one, the baby is napping; two, we are out of doors, a few blocks from home.
Anyway, Mina Morris. Crisp gave me her contact info because we’re supposed to be landlord proxy, Paul and I, take care of anything that comes up with the house while they’re gone.
Mina Morris. Quasi known as the bass player from the Misogynists. Girl band, Oregon, late eighties. Lots of better-known girl bands talk about having been influenced by them.
Cold this week, and dark so early. Late afternoon and the light is dead. So it begins: months of early darkness and cold. November again, back around to another. Last November a nightmare blur of newborn stitches tears antibiotics awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears. My weeks structured around a very occasional trip to the drive-through donut place near the mall, baby dozing in the back. Idling in the crappy old Jewish cemetery across the highway, heat cranked, reading names on crooked headstones, sipping an enormous, too-sweet latte, tapping at the disappointing glow of my device.
Faint whistle. There goes a train. To the city, probably. Four fifteen. Too late for the baby’s nap now, too close to bedtime. But I’ve given up trying to control this shit. If you have an agenda, any needs or desires of your own (like, for example, to take a shower, take a dump, be somewhere at a given time, sit and think), you’re screwed. The trick is to surrender completely, take your moments when you get them, don’t dare want for more.
Mina Morris: erstwhile poet, almost rock star. Here, in Crisp and Jerry’s house. Gives me an obscure little thrill, it does. I want to be friends.
A third-floor light goes on, and simultaneously the baby starts up with the whimpers. I take my cue. Keep the stroller moving, always moving, a reflexive animal sway. Respite over. Maneuver down the block toward the river, up Chestnut, and on home. Put some cheese on crackers and call it dinner.
Another day gone, okay, and I get it, I got it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby, and disappear.
I’m not interested in anything.
Which might make sense if I was all consumed with thoughts of baby-food making and craft projects and sleep-training philosophies and bouncy-chair brands, but I really can’t get all that excited about any of that shit either. So basically I have no idea what to do with myself, Paul.
Babe. Give it some time.
Fine, I mean, great, but how much time? He’s one, Paul.
Exactly, babe, he’s one.
You should just send me away someplace. You should just take me out back and shoot me.
Utrecht, New York: the valiant but disgusting Bottomless Cup, the filthy antique shop with unpredictable hours, the burrito bar with blurry pane glass. Windowless Ozzy’s, the diviest bar ever, embodiment of dive, hilarious exaggeration of dive: jaundiced, wispy-haired men in stonewashed denim smoking endless cigarettes and playing pool on a disintegrating table at eleven in the morning. The tiny cheesecake-burlesque joint run by kids (it’s funny how you start calling them kids) who graduated a few years ago and are committed to local regeneration. They smoke weed and bake all day, act sort of put out when you come in wanting a slice of caramel toffee and some tea. Long-empty storefront, recently empty storefront, long-empty storefront.
Two hundred miles directly up the river on the east side, forty-five minutes past the sweet antiques, the second homes. A town, I guess you’d call it, a once-upon-a-time town, some blocks of cheap, amazing, mostly run-down houses crying out for restoration by the likes of us. We are happy to oblige them, the houses. We live like kings. When Paul got this job I was six months pregnant and we thought: okay, yeah, go fuck yourself, Brooklyn! We spent like a hundred dollars on an amazing 1872 four-bedroom Italianate with a killer porch and congratulated ourselves on the excellent aesthetic of it all, no “good” school district for miles, relatively low volume of hyper-ambitious creative aspirants, stoic wide planks groaning wisely underfoot.
Our accountant works out of the creaky Albany townhouse where Herman Melville spent part of his childhood. There’s an okay coffee roaster, a tiny wine bar, a tinier used-book store, and a shitbox convenience store. And the food co-op two towns over where I work Fridays like a good little citizen. Sometimes I even wear the baby around in a sling.
The college in town is pretty much its own thing — rich kids who didn’t get into fill-in-the-blank — and the town, or the quasi town, has been in varying stages of rot for a while. Some faculty live in this handful of blocks, in these amazing, intermittently neglected houses sloping down toward the overgrown banks of the river; others live in head-shakingly unattractive suburbs spreading out like rays from the sun of the mall north of here. A stubborn few actually commute from the city, refuse to be separated from that fucking city, not even for wildly affordable pocket doors and stained glass and exquisite molding and antique tile and anti-glamorous/glamorous social annihilation.
In the early nineteenth century, Utrecht was the center of shirt-cuff manufacturing, big bustling factory supported the entire town, until a succession of patents changed shirt-cuff manufacturing forever, mass production, outsourcing, what have you, and Utrecht withered like a corpse. A dump, to be sure, but still, a kind of particularly sweet Hudson Valley dump. A shirt-cuff bigwig founded the college in 1845, purportedly because his son didn’t get into Harvard.
Remnants of the shirt-cuff era abound. A leathery and delightful old girl band called the Cuffs. The empty shell of the mill immediately downriver. Once in a while there’s a spirited movement to turn it into some sort of performance space, a DIY community center they want to call “the Downriver,” but local bureaucrats crush that regenerative shit time and again, dashing the hopes of our sweet, stoned cheesecake artistes.
Few blocks in any direction are desperate slums, and on Sundays you can’t so much as buy a newspaper within a mile. But there’s a tiny, unpretentious farmers’ market in the courtyard of a vacant mini-mall on the edge of town, and a chain pharmacy just opened a ways down Main Street, in a long-empty storefront that was for a hundred years a jewelry store. BARLOW AND SONS, EST. 1893: you can still see remnants of the old gold lettering. The chain pharmacy didn’t even bother to fully renovate. Just slapped a fluorescent sign over the door and drywalled the interior.
Posted February 28, 2015
Maybe my expectations for this book were too high, but I found After Birth almost unreadable. It was crude, depressing and peopled with characters I didn't like and couldn't relate to. Although the story line had potential, it was never developed or realized. and became lost in a sea of negativity. Out of the entire book, there was only one paragraph I felt worthy of publishing. It came early in the book when the main character described the overwhelming fears of new motherhood. I kept reading, hoping to find similar descriptions., but was disappointed. Dreary,, boring, a complete waste of my time. Save your money and borrow from the library.
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Posted April 23, 2015
I purchased this book after hearing the author interviewed on NPR. I regret the purchase. I had to stop reading after about 60 pages because the character's outlook on life was so negative, self-centered & hateful of everyone.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 20, 2015
Posted March 2, 2015
Sharing the wealth on different perspectives of this recommended book. After Birth is a brutally honest book about a subject that’s not talked about in all honesty, though there’s an entire industry built around it: motherhood, specifically new motherhood. It’s true the voice may be out of some folks’ comfort zones- jolting, raw, in your face. Indeed I almost put it back down on the shelf as it doesn’t always work for me, but I don’t always like to read in my comfort zone and I know Ms. Albert has the craft to tell a story, and there is a universal one in here. An elegy for the collective female wisdom that made the birth and after birth period less mysterious and shocking and vulnerable to patriarchal control behind medicalized birth and baby feeding. Will everyone relate to the narrator’s inner stories of sex, drugs, privilege, loss? Not all (though some will) but perhaps most can relate to the swan song of the female who finds herself suddenly questioning whats touted as female emancipation because of baby formula or putting off childbearing for convenience. Those benefits have their place and time, but not how they’re sold to us. Do only a few privileged get to think of such things while others troll away to get through the day with food on the table? Yes, but it doesn’t make the arguments less relevant, and the narrator isn’t blind to this privilege. She acknowledges it as real but doesn’t make the harsh truths she brings up go away. In fact, she’s quite likeable.
This is not a poor me motherhood book, though at times you want to shake the narrator and scream “Not all women are blessed with this burden!” but in doing so that would negate the very real wacky, scary sometimes terrifying feelings that post partum life brings, and individual story of each woman. The narrator questions the system we have in place in how we view childbirth and post partum health.
The book also brings to light the wacky world of female friendships, and how its zaniness continues into the world of motherhood (my own take is part of the problem is how people place importance in them because they have to with the loss of extended family to help).
All that being said, the story is engaging (I spent all of Sunday reading it) in its own fictional right. As a mom, book reader, writer and former student of Ms. Albert I appreciated so much here. Someone’s gotta give truth a loud voice when everyone else is being quiet, or whispering at most. To call out what’s being falsely spun about this beautiful blessing of life in the modern world. I already bought a second copy for a friend I know struggled with the 1st year.
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