The Unfinished Child
by Theresa Shea
Gripping. Heart-wrenching. Thought-provoking. Riveting. Haunting. Unputdownable.
Those are just a few words that come to mind to describe this just-released novel by Canadian writer, Theresa Shea.
At the heart of the story are three women: Marie, Elizabeth, and Margaret.
In 1947, Margaret gives birth to her first baby, a girl, whom she names Carolyn. She is allowed to hold her baby once, and even that is against her doctor’s advice. Born with Down syndrome at a time when institutionalization of “mongoloids” and “mental defectives” was the norm, something within Margaret dies, nonetheless, at handing her baby over. As was also the norm then, the whole incident is brushed under the rug, and Margaret is expected to forget her first child ever existed, and move on. Move on, she does, having two “healthy” children in quick succession, but Margaret never fully recovers in her heart from Carolyn’s birth and absence. When Carolyn is four years old, Margaret summons up the courage to visit her in the “training centre” in which she is housed, and there begins twelve years of monthly visits from mother to daughter, all undertaken in secret.
Marie and Elizabeth are best friends in modern-day Canada. They’ve been best friends since they were girls, and their friendship has withstood not only the test of time, but of boyfriend stealing, and barely, the fact that Marie has two beautiful daughters and Elizabeth has never been able to have children despite a decade of grueling fertility treatments. Now, on the brink of turning 40, Marie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant again, and the news not only throws her for a loop, but opens up old wounds between her and Elizabeth. One night, Marie wakes from a dream, convinced that something is wrong with the baby she carries – the baby she never planned. Both her premonition and the fact of her “advanced maternal age” lead her down the path of prenatal testing, and suddenly it seems as though it’s not only her and her baby’s fate that lie in the crosshairs, but her husband’s, her existing children’s, and even her best friend’s fates as well.
How the stories of these three women from different eras intertwines will surprise you. Shea takes an unflinching look at the grim horrors of institutionalization, the nuanced dances that take place between spouses and friends, and the price we pay for having choices.
I broke down in tears many times throughout this deftly imagined story, and although I wanted to be able to summon up some righteous outrage at times, what I mostly felt was enlightened and a deep compassion. It drives home the fact that despite the debates raging about prenatal testing, abortion, and inclusion, nothing is black and white, and there are no easy answers.
This is a must read for not only parents in the Down syndrome community, but for all parents, and for anyone who appreciates masterful story-telling. I will not soon forget this book.