Today’s book review is of the unusual, poignant, unforgettable novel Miss Jane by Brad Watson. I picked up this book on my birthday of this year, when I was just browsing around Barnes & Noble looking for a gift to myself! Miss Jane jumped out at me because of its beautiful peacock cover. Yes—I judge books by their covers and I am proud of it. Miss Jane immediately appealed to me because of its subject matter: a young woman with a genital defect finds freedom in her condition, and it’s set primarily in 1920s-30s Mississippi.
The subject reminded me strongly of Middlesex, one of my favorite books. The book begins with the birth of Jane Chisolm, the fourth living child of farmers living in Mississippi in the 1920s. Jane’s mother previously lost two young children, so Jane’s birth is fraught with tension and anxiety, especially because the conception of Jane is murky for the mother, and shameful for the father. When Jane is delivered, Dr. Thompson, a local country doctor, is hesitant to name the sex of the baby. After a short period, he discovers that Jane has a rare genital defect that means she’ll never live a normal life for a woman at this period, i.e. marriage and children. It also means she’s incontinent, and must spend her whole life having “accidents” and unable to live like a normal person.
A major theme of this novel is what Jane will do with her life because of her restrictions. Because the normal functions of a woman are forbidden to her, she’s also more free than other women of this time. But her condition also dooms her to a life of intense loneliness. Not only can she never get married, have children, or normal sexual relations, but she also can’t be in decent company for more than a couple hours before her incontinence makes her differences very apparent. Despite her challenges, Jane is an enormously brave character, full of life, energy, passion, and strength. She forms a very close relationship with Dr. Thompson, who has vices and a dark side, but who always supports, encourages, and guides Jane through all the many vicissitudes of her tumultuous life.
Another striking aspect of this novel is the fact that Jane Chisolm is based on the author’s great-aunt, who had a similar affliction. That fact made the narrative much more poignant, knowing there was a real woman who had to suffer without the advances in medicine and surgery we can sometimes take for granted today.
The writing is also exquisite. I tend to put tabbies into my book noting my favorite passages, and I was constantly marking pages where the prose was just breathtaking. Here are a couple examples:
“She loved most being in the woods with the diffused light and the quiet there. Such a stillness, with just the pecking of ground birds and forest animals, the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels playing up and down a tree. The silent, imperceptible unfurling of spring buds into blossom. She felt comfortable there. As if nothing could be unnatural in that place, within but apart from the world.”
“She understood somehow that she was lucky in her special way to love these events without the complicated, pressing question of physical love, to absorb life from the center and its periphery at once, so she could for a while take it all in with the sweet fullness of the entirely human and the utterly strange, without apprehension or fear.”
Definitely read this book!
Fans of historical fiction, women’s interest, feminist fiction, and/or those who loved Middlesex.
Buy it on Amazon here.