A few pages into Trying, I had to close it and put it down. Not because it wasn’t good. It is. Really good, in fact. But it was painful, too. The flashes of recognition hit me with a force that was almost like being winded. I needed a second to catch my breath.
As you might have guessed from the title, it is a novel about trying to conceive. (Something I firmly believe we need to talk more honestly about as you may recall.) It is very funny, engrossing (I read it faster than I’ve read anything else this year) and, for me – and I suspect for many of you – painfully real.
Liv is 30-something, over-worked, underpaid, and slowly being pulled apart piece by piece by working, socialising (and commuting) in London. She is short on time and high on anxiety. She is also desperately trying for a baby with her over-worked, underpaid, away-from-home-a-lot husband. Without much luck. Not even the squintiest squinter of a second line on a pregnancy test in more than a year.
The ache of other people’s pregnancy announcements, the boiling jealousy sparked by colleagues’ maternity leave, the tedium of fertility apps, the flashing smiley faces of ovulation kits that start to feel like they’re mocking you, the pain of living in the sensible suburbs with no baby to show for it, endless indecision about whether to wine or not to wine…. It’s all in here.
It might sound unlikely material for comedy – and at many points Liv’s story does feel bleak – but Emily Phillips manages to find the funny nonetheless. The writing pulls no punches (no flaccid penis is spared) it’s vivid, conversational and puts you right in Liv’s head. Comparisons to Marian Keyes or Mhairi McFarlane are not unjustified.
There is delicious scalpel-sharpness, too – the unbearable Walthamstow couple with Scandinavian pretensions (décor, kids names, eye-wear); the hideous trappings of parenting in the age of Instagram (gender-reveal pinata, anyone?).
But my favourite trick was how Liv’s story is punctuated with interviews with various (fictional) women and couples about their families and the often circuitous routes it has taken them to get there. The idea is that Liv does these interviews as part of a work project. They come in between chapters and cover all sorts of ground – miscarriage, IVF, post-natal depression, the adoption process… All stories about parenthood you don’t hear that often, all told in precise and moving detail.
For me, that’s Trying’s great strength. It takes all manner of awkward topics we don’t want to look in the eye (infertility, miscarriage, the gender paygap, even lecherous bosses get a look in) and spins them into a pacy, fun, darkly comic novel you’ll look forward to reading on your commute. And we badly need this stuff made mainstream. Pregnancy – uncomplicated, unthinking – is so often the only available plotline for women, even now. It got Bridget Jones. Hell, it even got Hannah Horvath in Girls. But there’s more to our story than this, as Emily Phillips makes plain (while at the same time making you root for Liv to get that much-wanted second line on a First Response. Will she? I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a good’un).
I don’t want to presume as to how much of the novel is drawn from the author’s own experience. But my gut feeling is that this has come from someone who knows. Who’s been there. The author’s note states that Emily Phillips’ two main goals have always been to write a book and to have a baby. All I can say is, she’s nailed the book part. I really, truly hope she gets the baby, too.
- Trying is published on January 25, 2018, by Hodder & Stoughton, and is available for pre-order now.