Illegitimate pregnancies lead to a career in lactation in Chapel Hill bookseller Eisdorfer’s inventive first novel.
Victorian ladies who couldn’t or wouldn’t breast-feed their infants hired someone like Susan Rose to do it for them. Susan, one of ten children, leaves her farm family in the English village of Leighton to work as a scullery maid at the local Great House. Soon, however, her Rubenesque figure and generosity with her favors lands her in trouble. After several meetings in the pantry with the master’s son, Freddie Bonney, she leaves the Manor; unbeknownst to her employer, she is about to give birth. Furious at the prospect of one more mouth to feed, her venal, drunken father Tom is mollified when his wife, herself a retired wet nurse, finds Susan lucrative employment as live-in milk source for a succession of families in nearby Aubrey. But she can’t take baby Joey with her, and he dies after being weaned too soon. While in Aubrey, Susan has a brief affair with a Jewish dentist. When work dries up, she goes back to the Manor and resumes trysting with Freddie. Assuming (erroneously) that Freddie is the father of Susan’s second out-of-wedlock baby, Tom blackmails the Bonneys, who farm out infant Davey to their London cousin, Mrs. Norval. Insinuating herself into the Norval household as a wet nurse, Susan soon discovers that Mrs. Norval is decidedly not the maternal type; in fact, she’s psychotic. Playing on her mistress’s delusions, Susan concocts a subterfuge, too delicious to reveal here, that enables her to rescue Davey from the Bonneys’ misguided charity. Periodic set pieces illustrating reasons for surrogate suckling reflect exhaustive research but interrupt the story’s flow. Susan is such an appealing narrator and heroine, however, that readers will cheer on her quest for a true home.
An engaging romp propelled by Susan’s infectious voice and determined resilience.