Sarah Anderson loves her two young children, but feels much of the time like she has lost herself. She hesitates to tell people that she is a stay-at-home mother because of the reactions that announcement often provokes. Her husband, Tom, travels extensively for business and works long hours, often coming home to regale her with stories of his workplace accomplishments without even asking how their children’s day was. Even when he is at home, he spends hours holed away in his study and Sarah wonders if he will ever realize how much of their boys’ lives he is missing as he manages a series of projects for the tech company that employs him and she shoulders increasing responsibility for managing their home.
Sarah decides to join a book club devoted to discussing classics as a way of getting out of the house and having some time to herself just one evening per month — if, that is, she can manage to stay away long enough to read the books selected by the group.
Meanwhile, Annie Jacobs is growing increasingly desperate to have a child. At 37, she and her lawyer husband, John, have achieved career success and traveled the world together, as well as purchased and decorated a beautiful five-bedroom home, during their sixteen-year marriage. Annie is ready to enter the next phase of her life: motherhood — if only her body would cooperate. Pressure from John’s family, who insist that he play Santa each year because he is the only sibling who does not have a child of his own thus far, and Annie’s strained relationship with her emotionally distant mother add to her frustrations. Rather than consider adoption, Annie insists upon commencing fertility treatments — no matter what the cost, financially or to her marriage.
Like Sarah, Annie seeks a brief respite from the rigors of her life as a member of The Bibliophiles, led by the eccentric and formidable Edwina Hipplewhite.
Author Karen Wojcik Berner’s debut novel, A Whisper to a Scream, is the first in a planned six-installment series of books exploring the lives of the members of The Bibliophiles, the fictional book club founded by Edwina Hipplewhite for the purpose of reading classic literature. Their first selection is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. When Berner’s two protagonists, Sarah and Annie, both join the group, the women form an initially tentative friendship through which they come to glimpse and appreciate what life is like on opposite ends of the motherhood continuum. Annie longs to conceive a child, while Sarah is overwhelmed by the demands of practically parenting her boys alone.
Berner’s two lead characters are believable, their plights sympathetic. Sarah is the everywoman to whom many female readers will easily relate. She wonders what happened to the woman she used to be before she began answering to a new name, “Mom.” That she loves her children unconditionally is never in question, but she struggles to balance her responsibilities against her growing need to reclaim just a slight bit of her former self. Her resentment of husband Tom’s detachment from their home, children’s lives, and marriage grates on Sarah in an entirely realistic manner. More sad than angry, Sarah realizes how much he is missing, as are their sons, while longing for the husband she still loves and desires. When Tom accepts a long-term assignment in Boston, Sarah soldiers on at home. In one heart-breaking and poignant moment, she observes that “Dada” has vanished from her toddler son’s vocabulary in the wake of Tom’s extended absences.
[T]he idea of an overwhelmed stay-at-home mom (Sarah) came to me in the shower, probably because it was the only time I had two minutes to myself since my kids were very young at the time. I’m sure many of you can relate.~ Author Karen Wojcik Berner
In contrast, Annie has until recently focused on her career with a public relations firm. She and John, a litigator anxious to become a partner in the law firm where he is employed, consciously chose to defer child-rearing while they enjoyed being a couple and attained a modicum of financial comfort. It never occurred to Annie that they would experience “unexplained fertility.” With each month that passes without a positive pregnancy test, Annie becomes increasingly fixated on conceiving a child. She convinces John to undergo testing and submit to expensive, invasive, and humiliating fertility treatments. For John, the stakes are not nearly as high — he would gladly explore adoption — even though he is also disappointed and baffled by their circumstances. Hormone treatments exasperate Annie’s erratic behavior, which threatens to derail her career. Simultaneously, John launches into professional hyper-drive. He is determined to make partner, but also seeks refuge from their increasingly strained marital relationship. Berner’s depiction of a couple mired in grief and aggravation, helpless to stem the tide of resentments, blame, and emotional isolation when they need each other most is the highlight of A Whisper to a Scream.
Against the backdrop of marital and maternal disappointments, Sarah and Annie learn from each other. While the issues explored by Berner are certainly neither new nor novel, she strikes just the right balance with characters whose problems are genuine, their emotional struggles compelling. Sarah is the more empathetic of the two, simply because she is more selfless and, despite her frustrations, never loses sight of what is most important in her life. Annie, meanwhile, teeters on the edge of narcissistic compulsion, but Berner deftly refuses to allow the character to spin completely out of control, reminding readers that fertility treatments have exacted a horrific toll upon Annie’s body, in addition to her psyche. A couple of surprising plot twists propel the story forward, although it does end abruptly.
A Whisper to a Scream is entertaining and its assortment of supporting characters intriguing, which bodes well for the next planned installment, How Long ‘Til My Soul Gets It Right? Therein, Berner will relay the story of Catherine Elbert, a would-be actress acquainted with rejection. Future volumes will focus upon the lives of other members of the book club. A Whisper to a Scream sets a realistic, compelling and promising tone for the series.
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