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Nova Scotia

Review: Charlene Carr’s novel ‘Hold My Girl’

Questions about motherhood – its truths and its lies – are at the center of Charlene Carr’s tenth novel, a themed thriller about a world where babies are conceived in petrie dishes. When the eggs are swapped, fates change. This page-turning drama begins as Katherine, a new Nova Scotia mom, world-class orderly, five-star caregiver, obsessively searches for her keys in the “exquisite room” in the “stunning” home she shares with her husband Patrick and Little Rose, her IVF baby, shares her beauty. Ironically, Baby Rose is discovered with the missing keys, a powerful symbol of her role in the tug-of-war family drama about to unfold.

Although Katherine is admittedly tense, she has cause for concern. Your fertility clinic called with a message about “a fairly serious issue regarding your IVF procedure.” While Rose, the joy of her life, is extremely fair, Katherine is “fair-skinned for a black woman, even mixed race.” Mother and daughter do not look alike.

Next we meet frail blonde Tess – chapter titles alternate between the two women – working on her new lab job and tenaciously reclaiming a life that is far from exquisite. Divorced, childless, Tess’ last chance at IVF motherhood, failed spectacularly.

When the two women find each other at a party at The Natural Ways Wellness Center — where expectant mothers discuss “fertility diets, herbs and supplements, this or that drug” and hope to conceive — their meeting is awkward. “Blinded by hope and possibility,” Tess once found the center “a place where she could speak without shame.” Tess, now feeling completely out of place, is approached by a sympathetic Katherine, who briefly presents her baby Rose – an iconic gesture.

The women in the room are full of breaking news. A nurse confessed. There has been a “switch” in the IVF clinic that women go to when “natural ways” don’t work. Carr’s story takes us deep into both the brave new world of Petrie dish babies and the stark contrasts between Halifax’s social classes. Katherine once ran a decorating business, but is now delving into perfect motherhood — or at least imitating perfection — in her perfect home. When a judge inevitably has to decide who gets custody of little Rose, Patrick and Katherine sit in “plush” chairs, green tea for her and soda for him. An “assistant in high heels” leads her to her lawyer’s office. Can Money Buy Parenthood?

Then there’s Rose’s over-the-top first birthday party, which seems oddly regal. When Tess crashes the event, Katherine’s fake smile hides her desperation. Biology and classes aside, Katherine has long endured Archie Bunker-level racism at her in-laws’ family dinners. She seems heroic for not calling out her exquisitely bigoted mother-in-law. (Readers will cheer for them.) Husband Patrick takes it all casually, except when his father calls IVF an “abomination.” What horrible people.

All of the family relationships in the novel seem pretty shaky, almost toxic. Aside from her loyal brother, Tess’ family is a whole other minefield. Her religious Polish parents were confused – her mother angry – as she dropped out of college, married for security reasons, and then was disowned by her wealthy spouse because of her fertility problems. She now finds escape in bars with strange men. But this seemingly defeated young woman – “a touch of a girl” in Katherine’s eyes – is instantly transformed into a mother lion when news of the IVF switch gives her hope.

Secrets from the past tumble to light – why would a nurse in the lab deliberately switch test tubes? The action soon shifts from seething suspense to full blast. In Biblical times, true motherhood was decided at the court of King Solomon. Today’s courts include debates on social media about biology and visitation rights. It’s ugly stuff.

While uncovering the potential for drama surrounding IVF babies in Canada, where, Carr tells us, infertility affects one in six couples, Carr also shows us the strength of women who refuse to accept what nature denies them has. Instead, they tirelessly pursue every natural and scientific avenue to hold their baby in their arms. And when people – well-intentioned or not – interfere, beware. Life without motherhood is unsustainable, but neither, it turns out, is lacking in tenderness and compassion.


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