At 54, Ruth Furnival is powerful, successful, and fast becoming invisible. Having left her working-class Cornish roots far behind to become the director of her own TV production company, along the way wedding charming barrister Adam and launching two talented daughters, she’s surprised to discover that she minds the waning of her sexual attractiveness a great deal. There’s more than a smidgen of vanity, therefore, in her decision to subject herself to monster doses of hormones and become a surrogate for her eldest daughter, Lauren, who has just suffered her seventh miscarriage.
Surrogacy stirs up a complex swirl of ethics and emotions, easily lending itself to sensationalism. It’s a trap that Spindler’s intimate, equitable debut novel dodges, even as the ramifications of Ruth’s decision predictably blow the happy Furnival family apart. Instead, this is a book that’s overly burdened by its mission to educate, meaning that, despite deft structuring, the early chapters tend to get bogged down in meticulous probing of moral and biological boundaries, often via some pretty clunky dialogue. As the plot quickens, however, the prose improves; when it comes to describing a crisis, of which there are plenty, it soars.
While the narrative shifts between viewpoints, it’s Ruth’s that dominates. The most fully realised character, she is imposing, forceful, and not always likable. (As the hormones take hold, she’s also increasingly lusty, which feels bracingly transgressive so far as the fictional representation of middle-aged women goes.)
Is becoming Lauren’s surrogate in her 50s an act of biological hubris, Ruth asks herself early on. Her motives are certainly mixed, but the pregnancy changes her in a way that carrying her own babies never did. It becomes a reckoning – not just for her postmenopausal body but also for her psyche, forcing her to question herself as a mother, wife, and colleague.
In the end, this is as much a novel about womanhood as it is about motherhood. To quote Ruth herself, “Contraception, abortion, infertility – they’re central to the physical and ethical experience of being female, but we never join up the dots and talk about them honestly”.