5:13pm

Tue January 4, 2011
You Must Read This

This 'Exact Replica' Is More Than Just A Tragedy

I have to admit, the last thing I wanted to do was read An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Sure, it seemed like every critic in the country had raved about this book, but a memoir about a stillborn child? No thanks.

Then, a few months later, I noticed a colleague reading at work and laughing out loud. I asked what was so funny, and she held up McCracken's memoir. So I picked it up, read it cover to cover, and then, because I was so awed by this book, I went a little ... crazy.

I don't mean crazy as in the book sent me over the edge, but crazy in terms of telling every single person that they absolutely, positively, without a doubt, needed to read it, too.

Don't for a second think this book is just about a stillborn child. It's brilliantly funny and devastatingly painful. There's something life-changing about this book, not only because it makes you grateful for your existence but because it also makes you completely rethink it.

Meanwhile, McCracken is so engaging that you'll wish you could go to her house and eat dinner with her and her husband. Both writers, they'd spent McCracken's otherwise idyllic pregnancy in France, and when told that they had to name their dead baby on the birth certificate for legal reasons, they couldn't bear to give this child a name other than what they'd always called him in utero -- Pudding. "I'm glad we were in a foreign country," she writes. "The French probably thought it was an ordinary Anglo-Saxon name, like William or George."

I should mention that this book is different from your typical illness memoir tempered with gallows humor, because the authors of those books always, obviously, have a happy ending. But here, there's never a resolution because, as McCracken puts it, "lighter things will happen to you, birds will steal your husband's sandwich on the beach, and your child will still be dead."

It's that uncomfortable truth that makes it so hard for people to comfort McCracken after Pudding's death. "I don't even know what I would have wanted someone to say," McCracken explains. "Not: It will be better. Not: You don't think you'll live through this, but you will. Maybe: Tomorrow you will spontaneously combust. ... That might have comforted me."

McCracken's pain is tolerable partly because we learn in the first few pages that there's a second baby -- a healthy one -- on the author's lap as she types the words into the memoir of her first. But during her second pregnancy, when she visits her obstetrician, she's no longer in the "maternal oblivion" that she worries may have killed Pudding. Now, she explains, "I wanted a separate waiting room for people like me, with different magazines. No Parenting or Wondertime or Pregnancy ... I wanted Hold Your Horses Magazine. Don't Count Your Chickens for Women. Pregnant for The Time Being Monthly."

Happily, in her early 40s, she's able to have two healthy children about a year apart, the good old-fashioned way. And that's the thing -- how do you reconcile her incredible good fortune with the fact that when people ask how many kids she has, she still isn't sure if the answer is two or three?

It's hard to recommend a book like this without sounding slightly insane. All I can say is, this story of stunning loss and grief and tragedy is really a moving and affirming story of love -- for Pudding, for her husband, and for the two children that follow -- that, like Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, will pop into your head when you least expect it. Because despite the fact that it preys upon our deepest fears, that's not a reason to avoid it. It's actually the reason to read it.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related Program