Sacrifice looms large in many women’s lives, and a woman who becomes a mother is often expected to accomodate others’ needs at the expense of her own. In The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Cherise Wolas examines the choices women make for the sake of their families, questioning the long-term impact these decisions have on women’s identities.
Joan Ashby is already an acclaimed writer when she falls in love with Martin, a surgeon who takes her out of her comfort zone and brings balance to her life. The couple get married, but before doing so, Joan makes it clear that she never wants children—a rule she made for herself in order to pursue her writing career. Shortly after wrapping up a book tour and moving to a small town, however, Joan learns she is pregnant and decides to become a mother, with a second child following within a few years. While Joan finds happiness in motherhood, she struggles to fit her work into her life, particularly as her two sons start requiring more attention and energy.
Joan attempts to keep her writing alive, until one of her sons commits an unthinkable act of cruelty that leaves her emotionally reeling. It prompts Joan to travel overseas and reconsider her identity, including her relationships with her sons and husband.
Wolas makes a great deal of Joan’s talent. The story opens with a long article about Joan’s writing, and the over 500-page novel is littered with excerpts from Joan’s work. Wolas constantly reminds the reader that not only is Joan passionate about writing, she’s good at it. Woefully, it’s one of the only things about Joan that feels fully realized. There’s a passivity to the character that makes it difficult to understand her views; her motivations, aside from the drive to write, are too neglected to feel complete.
That said, Wolas’ own writing talent is abundantly clear, and her decision to tackle the strain traditional domesticity can have on relationships proves timely. But there’s a shallowness to the narrative that’s difficult to shake, and that undermines the book’s ultimate relevance.
Covering around three decades, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby vacillates between extreme detail and rapid time jumps. It’s a disorienting structure, with Joan seeming to grow too little in the interim. Although a beautifully written and—at times—compelling look at a gifted woman trying to fit into a life she never imagined, the book isn’t quite gripping enough to fulfill its lofty ambitions.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.