In the near-future of Leni Zumas’s novel, abortion is again illegal in the United States, in vitro fertilization is banned, and soon only married people will be able to adopt children. That is the world that the four women of Red Clocks must contend with. One woman, The Biographer, is a single teacher, hoping for a child. The Mender is a woman who lives on her own, providing women with herbal cures for various ailments, including unwanted pregnancy. The Daughter is still in high school, looking forward to Math Academy, but pregnant. The Wife is feeling stuck in a marriage that no longer makes her happy.
All of these women are linked, but their connections only gradually come to the surface. Their names, too, are more likely to be revealed in the sections about other characters, making each woman’s own section feel like it’s more about her role in the world, rather than her identity. This is a strategy I can understand in a novel of social commentary like this one, but I have to admit that it kept me feeling distant from the characters.
Each chapter is really more of a fragment than a chapter, many of them no longer than four or five pages, some not even a page. This made for quick reading, but it also made connection with the characters difficult. All of their situations got to me to some degree, but I never sunk into them as people. Perhaps that was Zumas’s intention, and I can respect that choice, but it kept me from loving the book. The situations themselves are of course horrible, but maybe too familiar and too likely for this sort of approach to work for me.
There’s also a fifth woman I haven’t mentioned, Eivør Minervudottir, a 19th-century polar explorer. This (alas) fictional woman is the subject of the Biographer’s work, and in between each chapter of the book, we get fragments of the biography in progress, sometimes complete paragraphs, sometimes just notes. Rarely is there enough to give a sense of the woman and her time. I wanted more of her. I may have even wanted the book to be about her. As it is, I’m not sure I understood her presence, unless it was to show that women have always had it rough, which… duh.
At this point, I realize I sound snarkier toward this book than I feel. I liked it fine, didn’t love it. Didn’t think it offered any surprises or new insights. But I cared enough about the characters situations to read the whole thing, and I appreciated the way the various stories resolved (not always happily, but without unrelenting tragedy).