Orbach (Transgressions and Other Stories, 2013) weaves a story focused on a young doctor, two women in his life, and an abortion clinic in this socially minded volume.
“It was still only the beginning of our lives,” observes Jenna early in the novel as she and her fellow residents at a Boston hospital gather to celebrate one of their birthdays. This is before Jenna’s teenage sister gets pregnant; before her friend Phil—whose commitment to helping women is described as “almost pathological”—opens a women’s health clinic in upstate New York. One of the women he helps is Adele, who comes to rely on Phil following the deaths of her parents in an accident. She tries to be supportive of Phil’s career choices, though she worries about their ramifications. Jenna, who has long harbored unrequited feelings for Phil, returns from a year in Africa to assist at the clinic, but her emotional baggage —both familial and romantic—colors her ability to function dispassionately. Set against the culture wars of the early 1990s, when anti-abortion activism often turned violent, the stories of Jenna, Phil, and Adele intersect to illustrate the difficulty of holding on to ideals in a clinical environment and a cynical world. (At one point, Phil recalls: “People ask me sometimes why I made such a point of wanting to do abortions and maybe start a clinic—and then, later, why any of us kept on, even though it meant living in a combat zone.”) Orbach is a tremendous writer, her voice effortless and her sentences as smooth as a morphine drip. She is always attuned to her characters’ feelings, even as they try to hide their emotions. Here Jenna hears from Phil that he and Adele are having a baby: “The room seemed to tilt, as if I might be spilled back into the snowy street. ‘God bless,’ I said after a moment. It would never change, then.” The issues surrounding the abortion debate are ever present, yet the book’s tone is never preachy: histrionics are for activists, while Orbach’s doctors are (almost) always focused on the task at hand. It is this dichotomy between passion and calm—between saying something and talking yourself out of it—that frames the story’s central conflict, challenging readers to feel more than they’re normally comfortable doing.
An absorbing, engaging, and finely crafted novel about the abortion debate.