Julia Leigh’s Avalanche, a story of the writer’s devastating desire and struggle to conceive a child, is a slender memoir. However, the pages are richly packed with the details of her private hell as she spirals through cycle after cycle of in vitro fertilization. The challenge of reading this book, though, is a worthwhile one. It is difficult to witness someone’s pain so intensely, but it is also an honor.
What Leigh exposes in her writing isn’t just the inner workings of our infertility zeitgeist, with all of its statistics, though the numbers are bleaker than the media would generally have us believe. She makes tangible the emotional and psychological turmoil that those numbers create in patients who will cling to any sign of hope. “In the last year, what percentage of women my age at the clinic had taken home a baby using their own eggs?” she asks. “[The doctor’s] answer: 2.8 percent for 44-year-olds, 6.6 percent for 43-year-olds…What to do? What to do? Where does this stop?”
The heart of this book beats with raw honesty. Leigh’s acknowledgement, for instance, of putting her career before her desire to start a family: “I also said—it pains me now—that I needed to safeguard ‘my hard-won creative life.’ Why was I so quick to add any sort of caveat? Why did I set the two ways of being—motherhood, writing—at odds?” And of course, the sad, perhaps humiliating reckoning with the biological reality of her age: “When I reported back to my sister she frowned and said… ‘I hate to say it but the main thing is the age of your eggs so any extra hope is marginal.’”
Avalanche is not a traditional a memoir filled with scenes and stories. Leigh isn’t concerned with writing workshop rhetoric here, which means less time spent on the areas where most writers are told to focus: developing characters and settings and showing not telling. She’s concerned with telling her truth. Her story is internal, psychological. Of course there are external factors—her marriage and divorce, her career—but ultimately, the story moves away from these forces and becomes an all-consuming individual quest. Less a book, more an extended essay of sorts, Avalanche isn’t divided into chapters. It reads like a wistful film, perhaps a result of Leigh’s experience in script-writing, and it feels intentionally written to be read and digested in one sitting.
The prevalence of fertility treatments in our world deems this book timely, but at its core, this is not a story of fad medical treatments or the contemporary female plight. “What I try to hold onto,” she writes at the end of her journey, “is a commitment to love widely and intensely. Tenderly. In ways I would not have previously expected…After the avalanche, the bare face of the mountain. Under the sun and the moon.” Leigh’s story, while deeply personal and specific, strikes a far more universal chord: the desire to love, and to be loved, unconditionally; to find beauty and satisfaction in unexpected places; and to gracefully accept our individual narratives, even if they don’t play out the way we hoped or imagined them. —Holly Schechter
HOLLY SCHECHTER teaches English and Writing at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. She graduated from McGill University with a degree in English Literature, and holds an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is active at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where she received excellent care as a patient, and in turn serves on the Friends of Mount Sinai Board and fundraises for spine research. Her piece "Genealogy" appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.