Susan Spindler

Published by Virago 1 April 2021

384pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by N.J. Cooper

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Ruth and Adam are a successful couple in their fifties.  She is part owner of a television production company; he, a criminal barrister considering an application to become a judge.  Both are adjusting to the disappointments that have come with their age.  He misses their two messy, affectionate daughters, who have now left home; she, everything she has lost with the menopause.

One of the daughters, Alex, has a life she loves on the West Coast of America with a great job, friends, money and independence, while Lauren is married to Dan and has given up her ambition to become an artist in favour of going through the punishing business of IVF.  All she wants is a baby.  Now she and Dan have a few frozen embryos left, but she has a condition that means it’s too dangerous to try again.  The only route left is surrogacy, but they have spent all their money on several failed attempts and Dan, at least, is beginning to think about the possibilities of a childless life. Lauren cannot bear the prospect.

When Alex offers to carry the baby for them, everyone is happy until they discover that no one who has not already had a successful pregnancy is allowed to be a surrogate.  Eventually Ruth decides to try, without telling her husband.  It is just possible to reverse a recent menopause and become a surrogate at her age.  Her decision is complicated by Adam’s cradle Catholicism and various vicissitudes in their own relationship and so she continues to keep it secret from him, forging his signature on the necessary forms.

The drama in this intelligent first novel comes, of course, from the questions of whether the embryo can be successfully implanted in Ruth’s womb, whether she can carry it to term, and what the process and all its physical and emotional demands will do to her and her relationships with her husband and daughters – and theirs with each other.  All kinds of other questions and moral dilemmas emerge as the narrative moves on, first from one point of view and then another, covering what everyone involved would want to do if the foetus were to show abnormalities, whether there would be some unbreakable bond between the surrogate mother and the child even though the embryo was not hers, what the effort of pregnancy and birth would to do a fifty-four-year-old body, and more.

But most of all this novel deals with the ways in which the characters negotiate their own stories about what is going on.  Most of them behave badly at one stage or another and all of them believe themselves to be absolutely justified, given what the others are doing, or have done, to them.  Only Alex, living alone and thousands of miles away, is preserved from the battles and the barely acknowledged urge to punish that the others feel.

The book would have been even stronger if Alex were shown to be paying emotional costs of some kind for her freedom.  As it is, the inescapable message of Surrogate is:  if you embark on emotional closeness your whole life will consist of compromise and misery; if you want untrammelled happiness, eschew relationships and, especially, children.  I’m not sure that is what Susan Spindler intended.

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