Book Review: The Abortionist’s Daughter by Elisa DeCarlo

Recently, the mister noted that I’ve become somewhat preoccupied with early 1900s “upper-crusty British people,” as he put it. Taking a look at my Netflix viewing and some of my reading, he’s not wrong. Though set in New York, Elisa DeCarlo’s The Abortionist’s Daughter fits snugly within a genre rife with burgeoning feminism and class considerations that are much like our young nation’s parent country.

The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisa DeCarlo (cover)In the rural village of Muller’s Corners, near the Adirondack Mountains, Melanie Daniels tries to navigate her social life after her family’s disgrace. Her doctor father lost his license and spent time in jail after a woman for whom he provided an abortion died. Now in her mid-20s, being unmarried is threatening to give her the title of “old maid.” One gentleman is keen on her, but she’s not that into him, and besides, she’d much rather dream about the actors she reads about in Photoplay.

One afternoon, she meets a man called James Louis Thockmorton, who is allegedly a traveling salesman. Despite knowing little about each other, they fall easily into a romance, and against her better judgment, Melanie gets money from her sister to elope in New York City. James is slightly older, mysteriously vague about his past, and as one might expect, things might not work out in naïve Melanie’s favor.

He kissed her, then took her chin in his hand, and looked into her eyes. “You’re the kind of girl who needs looking after. That’s why I like you. New York women are too damned independent.”

“I do need to be looked after,” Melanie said hastily, because that was what he wanted to hear. “James, why did the clerk call you Mr. Landon? You said you always stayed here when you were in New York City.”

James looked at her. His eyes widened. “Did I say that? Are you sure?”

“Yes, in the automobile. You said you always stay here when you’re in New York. I think you called it home.”

“I never said that,” he said, and laughed. “I might have said that I’ve always wanted to stay here, but I most certainly did not say that I’ve stayed here before.”

“But you did —”

“I’m not going to argue with you, Melanie, I’ve never stayed at this hotel. Are you trying to make me out a liar?”

“No, no, not at all. I just thought–“

“You thought wrong. You want your folks to track you down? You want to get caught?”

“Of course not,” Melanie said.

“Well, then, from now on you’re Mrs. Landon and I’m Mr. Landon. Do you have an evening dress?”

No, that’s not suspicious at all

But The Abortionist’s Daughter is not all about a doomed romance. Melanie learns more about herself and what she’d like to do with her life. Her upbringing came with certain expectations, and she works to be free of them. Along the way, she reconciles her feelings about her father’s work. Throw in what it meant to be a theater actress in the late 1910s, and DeCarlo has herself a decent bit of historical fiction.

I say “decent” for a few reasons, and most of them come down to editing. I’m open to self-published books — and I’ve read a number of really good ones — but sometimes their weaknesses are in the details. Admittedly, the e-book review copy from which I’m reviewing could have been an unfinished copy, but that’s still no excuse for double spaces after a period.

Aren’t you being a little pedantic, Sara? Well, maybe, but hear me out — author-publishers face enough bias that I feel like they need to always be on their A-game, and that includes formatting. Before I realized what the issue was, I wondered why following the words on the page felt different, and maybe a little more difficult, when compared to other e-books. That double spacing creates odd gaps on the page, and the long row of tildes (~) as section dividers don’t do the reading experience any favors either. Trust the readers to follow a small blank gap on the page, or number a new chapter, but lose the tilde-lines.

The beginning of the book had stronger writing, even though the “small town girl meets bad boy” story is a little well-trodden. More care went into the details and setting the scene, while the second half has dialogue that over-explains, particularly with the character Dave:

“I guess working in this business you see it all eventually. You get jaded.” He let his arm fall, and looked at her. “For instance, it would have been far better for my mother if she didn’t have so many children. It left her old before her time, worn out and toothless. Whenever I see her now, it breaks my heart. But she’s from the old country, where a woman has to know her place.” He sighed. “Do you know who the father is?”

“No,” she lied.

“Probably that fancy-pants rich boy she was engaged to[…]”

We get the whole “women should have autonomy over their life” idea without the story about his mother. The entire book is about women having a choice, so no need to provide another example that doesn’t serve the plot.

Still, I liked The Abortionist’s Daughter, and it reminded me a little bit of another book I’ve read, The House of Eliott by Jean Marsh. Though Marsh’s book is set a decade later, both she and DeCarlo delight in describing the fashions and food of their chosen time period. I’m not an expert, but it feels authentic, and that’s the important thing. Although there are technical and craft missteps that took me out of the story here and there, I’m still pleased that I read it, and anyone looking for a lighter take on early feminism may very well enjoy it too.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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