To put it simply, reading Babyville was a revelation to me. I experienced it like a completely unexpected sock to the gut – it knocked the wind out of me and left me gasping for air. Reading this novel was an emotional journey I didn’t expect to take. It rose above stereotyped characters and you-can-see-them-coming plot contrivances to become something far more engaging and, well, important than it would appear on the surface.
Admittedly, Babyville had a strong impact on me because I could very easily be one of the three main female characters since I identified with some aspect of each of them. I suspect this is exactly what the author intended, since these characters – Julia, Maeve, and Samantha – are designed to represent thirty-something career women everywhere who are moving into their “settling down” phase with varying degrees of comfort and angst. Settling down in Babyville is synonymous with significant others and babies – not necessarily in that order. I think any woman who reads this novel will identify strongly with at least one of these characters and which woman resonates most with you will depend on your own personal experience.
The book is presented in three distinct sections, with each focusing fully on one woman’s experience. The three women know each other and are interconnected in ways that become clear only in the last third of the book – a successful method of structuring this novel for maximum effect. It is these three women, similar but different in motivation, attitude, and lifestyle, who breathe life into the subject, and create a threesome of female archetypes (Sam less successful than the first two) to celebrate. Each character is distinct and has her own voice, whether you agree with what she has to say or not. Green’s latest belongs to a fairly new sub-genre of Women’s Fiction called “Mommy Lit,” following Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, and the writing style throughout is Brit Chick Lit in tone – breezy, witty, and conversational. The final third has a more farcical style than the first two, but teeters back from the ridiculous just in time.
The first third of the book belongs to Julia, a successful television producer, in a four-year decidedly humdrum relationship with her boyfriend and who desperately wants a baby. As many women have believed before her, Julia thinks a baby will help to draw the two closer and somehow fix the gaping holes in their unsatisfying relationship. Gradually however, with the help of well-meaning friends and limited, but finally honest communication with her boyfriend, she starts to wonder if she may want the baby more than she really wants the relationship.
Maeve is the star of section two, though we meet her briefly in Julia’s story. A determined and ambitious television producer, Maeve is brought in by London Daytime Television to take Julia’s place while she is on sabbatical in New York. Maeve is the original Miss Independent – she does her own thing at all times, is uninterested in compromise or forming intimate connections. She firmly believes men are really only good for one thing, and if they can further your career too, well then it’s an added bonus. She is allergic to the idea of commitment, thinks most women would be better off without men, and absolutely shudders at the idea of motherhood. So you know what happens, right?
Sam’s story is the last third of Babyville and my least favorite. Although we meet Sam briefly in Julia’s section (the two are long-time best friends) when she is heavily pregnant, we don’t spend much time with her until she is a mother. By then she’s a sleep-deprived, depressed, anxiety-ridden witch who is difficult to like. I suspect that women who have been there will appreciate Sam more than I did. A successful graphic designer who willingly gave up her career to have her baby, Sam has now forgotten what it feels like to be happy. She and her husband once had a close, intimate marriage, but now have trouble communicating. The baby seems to be all they have in common, and they can’t get enough time alone together to rediscover what they loved about each other in the first place.
One of the flaws in Babyville is that each of the women is intended to represent many others, making them all superficial on some levels and more like “types” than the strong individuals they should be. Sam suffers from this more than the other two women – at times she is almost a caricature. I was relieved when Maeve made an appearance in Sam’s story, bringing a sense of calmness back to both the frenetic pace of Sam’s psyche and the novel as a whole.
Though I’ve focused on the primary female characters since this is essentially their book, there are solid, well drawn male characters in this novel as well. The men acquit themselves well (for the most part) throughout all the baby furor. Green occasionally allows us insight into their POV, and it is refreshing to get an occasional view of the action from their side of the fence.
This is not a perfect book from a strict literary standpoint. The characters tend toward the shallow, and some of the plot elements are contrived or telegraph themselves far in advance. But the emotional experience of reading this novel stayed with me for days. I’ve recommended it to at least five friends already – a mixed group of single/dating women and single/married mothers. For a book to have that kind of effect on a jaded reader like myself, clearly the author has done something very right and, for that very reason, I award it a higher grade than someone else might have done.
The overall message in Babyville is that life is rarely what it seems, and sometimes the most unexpected events change and enrich your life in ways you didn’t think possible. Such was my experience with this book.
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