Beware the Woman
“Abbott’s writing is elegant and precise. She also deftly and subtly illustrates the unfortunate fact that women are often not taken seriously by medical professionals . . .”
In Megan Abbott’s novel Beware the Woman, we follow Jacy, newly married and late in her first trimester of pregnancy, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with her husband, Jed, a neon sign-maker, to visit her father-in-law. Doctor Ash is a charming, retired widower, who lives alone in a remote, rugged part of the state. His only close companions are his friend, Hicks, and a caretaker, Mrs. Brandt. All goes well until Jacy experiences a frightening medical episode that leaves her isolated and effectively confined.
Abbott is economical in her physical descriptions of character and setting but succeeds in painting a vivid picture of both. “There was a landline in the kitchen and in the upstairs hallway. But no TVs or computers I could see.” Abbott continues this passage, relaying Jacy’s thoughts and feelings. “Maybe back in Doctor Ash’s study, tucked somewhere in the center of the house. But I doubted it, picturing an oak-lined library of medical books, some kind of fancy rosewood chessboard with all the pieces laid out . . . perhaps the faint smell of old tobacco fountain ink, wood soap . . .” These beautiful interior passages flow effortlessly, and neither interrupt the story nor distract the reader. From early on, these characters feel three-dimensional. Real.
Where the novel falls short is the story itself. It is predictable. The protagonist makes note of but seems unworried by subtle but near constant communications of malevolence. The local GP, Doctor Craig, a friend of Doctor Ash, says while listing for Jacy behaviors possibly leading to complications::
“Fibroids, for instance. Or an abortion.”
I didn’t say anything.
He looked at me, nudging his reading glasses down. Squinting at me, his thick eyebrows notted.
“And women who’ve committed two or more abortions, he said evenly, “have twice the risk of developing placenta previa.”
I paused. Committed. Had he said that?
With her father in-law:
Doctor Ash chuckled softly.
“Every woman should have her secrets,” he said, taking the rifle from me.
I laughed. “I don’t have any secrets.”
“Oh, Jacy,” he said, “you sure do.”
Considering a conversation with Mrs. Brandt, Jacy thinks: “It was only after she was gone that I remembered. Maybe you should go home, she’d said. Not you and Jed. You.”
The ending feels implausible. A violent last-moment rescue is provided by a character who is without reason not to have acted sooner.
Abbott’s writing is elegant and precise. She also deftly and subtly illustrates the unfortunate fact that women are often not taken seriously by medical professionals, even when that practitioner is a woman. However, that does not make up for a lackluster plot.
Ms. Abbott’s loyal fans will likely enjoy this novel, but she has done better work.