I wasn’t sure if I’d struggle with this book. I was in my early 40s before I gave up on meeting the man of my dreams. Or just someone who wanted to spend their life with me…. and started contemplating motherhood solo.
Dreary stories about sperm donors, artificial insemination and IVF aside… it didn’t happen for me and – as a result – I’m occasionally bitter and twisted about the whole thing. (Something others take for granted etc etc).
So, it was with some trepidation I embarked upon this story on motherhood.
The Greatest Gift
by Rachael Johns
Published by Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd
on October 23rd 2017
Genres: Women's Fiction, Romance
Mother: Female parent of a child
Mum: The woman who nurtures, raises and loves a child
Radio host Harper Drummond lives for her glamorous career. Every day she meets fascinating people doing extraordinary things, but has begun to wonder whether there’s something more for her out there.
She’s financially secure, happily married and loves her job — what more could she want from life? An interview with a childless couple prompts Harper to think about whether she could make a contribution. She and her husband, Samuel, know they don’t want a child in their lives, but could she help someone else become a mother?
The childhood cancer that left Claire Beggs infertile doesn’t matter to her husband, Jasper. He loves her unreservedly, and they are passionate about their thriving hot air balloon business in the Hunter Valley. Despite their contentment, Claire is desperate to have a child — she knows Jasper would be a brilliant father and doesn’t want him to regret choosing her over a family in the years to come. An egg donor seems to be Claire and Jasper’s only chance of a happy family.
Can they find someone who will give them the greatest gift?
I’ve met Rachael Johns a few times now and her generous spirit is very much reflected in her storytelling as is her sense of humour and self-effacing attitude in her writing. In fact, I wrote a guest post for a US blogger (the Caffeinated Reviewer) about the fact that I loved Rachael’s writing even before I’d read anything she’d written (because I could imagine what her books would be like). In fairness to Johns I’ve stayed away from her rural romance novels cos well…. I think it’s best if I don’t move TOO far out of my reading comfort zone but enjoyed her other work including 2016’s The Art of Keeping Secrets – which I think and hope is going great guns in the US at the moment.
I enjoyed the majority of this book. And in reality – other than the epilogue (but more on that later) – the bits I wasn’t overly fond of had nothing to do with Johns’ writing, more the characters and views raised in the book. Which is obviously the purpose of any piece of fiction – to get readers thinking and talking about the book’s plot and themes.
For these reasons this would be an excellent book club read as there are some pretty strong views floating about. But more on that later as well.
I initially liked our two early leads – Harper and Claire. Claire remained unsullied in my perception – perhaps a little young initially (cos she was/is) but likeable and earnest. And Jasper, Claire’s husband – the third of the characters whose heads we inhabit – is a decent guy. A normal guy. A nice guy.
Harper (however) irked me from a point in the novel I can’t say too much about (cos #spoiler), but it’s one of those topics that will be hotly discussed at mother’s groups or bookclubs. Even I became outraged at her ‘sudden’ assertion that the baby produced as a result of her eggs, was ‘hers’ or ‘theirs’ (which is how she constantly referred to the baby when talking about her and Jasper).
The backcover blurb talks about the mother vs mum thing but we didn’t really get to that point and again – I can’t go into detail (cos #spoilers) – but I wonder how Harper would have behaved had things worked out differently. I wonder if she would still have struggled with the role she thought she’d accepted.
I know I’m talking about her as if she was / is a real person (which reflects well on Johns’ character creation and storytelling) but Harper initially accepted a role because she felt a certain way – about her mother and the lasting impacts her childhood had – so I should be more sympathetic… but it’s obvious she spent minimal time with kids full stop, so who’s to say she wouldn’t have had second thoughts anyway.
And yes… I KNOW SHE’S NOT A REAL PERSON!
I have a very close friend who used donor eggs. It’s an open arrangement but the boundaries are very very clear and perhaps I was/am affronted on behalf of my friend who is MOST CERTAINLY the mother of her child. (Okay, rant over!)
I was relieved that the mother vs non-mother thing wasn’t too rampant because there’s nothing worse than one group judging the other and Johns treads lightly here, though there’s a small clash with Harper’s school friends who are mothers… their perception that non-mothers know little of their hardships and Harper’s complete lack of interest in the lives of her friends’ children.
I found myself grumpy – as someone who still aspired to motherhood later in life, having finally given up on the Prince Charming thing – that there was a bit of ageism flying about. Again it wasn’t Johns, but her characters…. some reticence for Harper to donate her eggs to someone who was 50 or nearly 50 cos she was far too old and a throwaway comment (later in the novel) about someone who was 40-ish and kinda ‘obviously’ had difficulty getting pregnant cos her eggs were too old.
See, I told you… this topic is fraught. It’s akin to a minefield. And one from which barely anyone escapes unscathed.
I raced through the first two thirds of this book in a sitting and had to put it aside until the next day because of other commitments, so it was during the final third that I found myself becoming enraged (often) on behalf of, well… lots of people really.
Obviously Johns is challenging her readers to consider all sides of these sensitive issues and knew what quagmire she was wading into when she themed this book. And as an aside, as there was some debate of ‘ownership’ in the book, I pondered whether a child (or person) can be a thing…. can even be a gift?!
I like that Johns stays away from cliches with her supporting cast. It’s pretty obvious that Harper’s husband Samuel isn’t overjoyed at her decision to become an egg donor and his constant late nights in the office and lack of interest in her life don’t bode well. But she tells us he’s still the same man she fell in love with and he has redeemable qualities. I liked Harper’s sister and friend (and work colleague) and Claire and Jasper’s families were great, surprising me on occasions, when Johns could have easily taken an easy way out with them for the sake of a few extra crises.
There are some deeper themes in this book obviously – the physical and emotional scars we bear from childhood (Claire and Harper being affected by both respectively in a way which brings them together in adulthood), and whether we’re able to overcome them. And then there’s the issue of motherhood and parenthood. Of unconditional love. Of promises and of faith.
I should mention some of the detail re egg donation and IVF felt a bit dense, though perhaps it’s because I already knew a bit about it. And there’s an epilogue which I didn’t love. I’m not sure it was necessary and wondered if there was any debate about including it. It does tie a few things neatly into a bow, but also lightens / softens the book into something it wasn’t.
I think this book will be hugely popular and loved by readers but am interested to see how passionately readers feel about certain elements. Perhaps it’s just my overthinking that made me gasp in horror and grimace in anger. And let’s not forget the sobbing.
The Greatest Gift by Rachael Johns will be published in Australia by Harlequin and available from 23 October 2017.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.