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Looking for Jane


Looking for Jane

Heather Marshall’s first novel, LOOKING FOR JANE, is centered on reproductive rights, the choice to be a mother and the power of a mother’s love. Already a bestseller in Canada and the United Kingdom, this masterful debut highlights the journeys of three women tied together by the ongoing fight for a woman’s right to choose.

In 2017, Angela Creighton is distracted by her fertility struggles when she clocks in to work at her aunt’s antique shop. Angela and her wife have tried five times to become pregnant, and she has just suffered her second miscarriage. Their funds and their patience are dwindling, but as an adoptee herself, Angela is desperate to carry a pregnancy to term, to hold her biological child and know that she has something truly her own. With all of these thoughts --- and an epic hangover --- rattling in her brain, she opens an antique bureau to discover a marble case holding old letters. Believing the recipients long dead, she is surprised to find one letter postmarked in 2010.

"LOOKING FOR JANE is a must-read for women of all ages, backgrounds and viewpoints. This graceful, poignant celebration of motherhood and the rights of women is a galvanizing wake-up call to continue the brave fight started so many decades ago."

When Angela opens it, she learns of Frances Mitchell, who wrote a letter to her daughter, Nancy, intended to be delivered only after Frances died. It informs Nancy (or Angela, as it were) that she was adopted, a secret that her parents held from her. But that’s not all. Only after the Mitchells adopted Nancy did they learn that St. Agnes’s Home for Unwed Mothers, the Catholic organization from which they purchased their daughter, was an abusive house of horrors in which young mothers were not only encouraged to give up their babies, they were forced to do so. Nancy’s biological mother hid a note in some hand-knit booties, and Frances held her secret to her death. With motherhood weighing heavily on her mind, Angela knows that she must find Nancy and put her mothers --- adoptive and biological --- at peace.

Jumping back to 1960, we meet Evelyn Taylor, a young pregnant woman who is St. Agnes’s newest “inmate.” Far from the image of promiscuous, “fast” young ladies, Evelyn has found herself pregnant shortly after the sudden, tragic death of her fiance, Leo. Had Leo lived only a few months longer, Evelyn would be seen as a mourning widow left with a miraculous gift, the opportunity to keep her husband’s legacy alive. Instead, she is told very plainly by the head nun that she has “gotten herself pregnant” and that giving up her baby will both allow her to repent and ensure that her reputation stays intact so she can one day marry and deliver a “legitimate” baby. While living at St. Agnes’s, Evelyn befriends a girl named Maggie. They bond over their dire straits, their desires to be mothers and, of course, the horrors of St. Agnes’s. As readers watch them deliver their babies and then see them ripped from their hands, Evelyn dreams of becoming a doctor one day.

Moving forward to 1980, we meet Nancy herself. At 18, Nancy helps her cousin seek an illegal, dangerous abortion, only to wind up carrying her cousin through a hospital as she hemorrhages to near death. Although Nancy is questioned, berated and accused by a male doctor who threatens to notify the authorities, a female doctor pulls her aside and advises her that if she, or any woman in her company, ever finds herself in this situation, she must call every doctor and hospital in the area and ask for “Jane.” Still reeling from the event, Nancy tries to forge her path to independence despite her smothering mother. After a shocking secret causes her to question everything she believes about herself, her family and women’s rights, she finds herself pregnant and finally seeks out a “Jane.”

As readers learn (and as some will know already), “Jane” was code for the Jane Collective, an underground women’s rights organization that sought to address the dangers of unsafe abortions being performed by untrained doctors. Janes worked diligently despite the risks to secure access to affordable, safe abortions for women from a variety of circumstances and backgrounds: teen lovers who had fallen pregnant, women whose miscarriages were incomplete, rape and incest victims, and more.

While Evelyn eventually grows up to become one of the practitioners of the Jane Collective, her journey is soon tied to Nancy, who finds her own place in the network. Angela continues her search for Nancy and her birth mother, hoping to reunite the two and find her own happy ending to her fertility journey, all while grappling with the horrors that befall women when they lose the right to choose…and the terrifying realization that conditions are not as far removed from the 1960s and ’70s as we may like to believe.

Weaving together these three women and their various pregnancy, fertility and motherhood journeys, Marshall pens a searing, devastating reminder of the battle that women have fought for decades (if not centuries) and the sacrifices they made to ensure the rights we hold today. While it could be advertised as an “abortion” novel, LOOKING FOR JANE --- thanks to Marshall’s meticulous research and emotionally resonant prose --- is so much more than an issue-based book and far more about motherhood than the antithesis of it.

As Marshall proves, the gray areas between wanting and not wanting to be a mother are full of complexities and nuances, personal details and haunting truths. While each of her characters faces the repercussions of the countless maternity homes that took advantage of unwed mothers, their journeys are entirely their own. As in every dual-perspective work of fiction, there’s also a compelling mystery at the heart of this book that will have readers racing through the pages to determine how the plotlines of Angela, Evelyn and Nancy will finally unite. While you may predict some of the connections, I can assure you that the most shocking one of all will knock you off your feet.

LOOKING FOR JANE is a must-read for women of all ages, backgrounds and viewpoints. This graceful, poignant celebration of motherhood and the rights of women is a galvanizing wake-up call to continue the brave fight started so many decades ago.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 24, 2023

Looking for Jane
by Heather Marshall

  • Publication Date: February 7, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1668013681
  • ISBN-13: 9781668013687