Review by Margaret O’Connor
Olive, Emma Gannon’s debut novel, gives readers a breath of fresh air on the challenges of deciding whether to have children. In an authentic, informed and non-judgemental way, she strikes a balance in dealing with very complex issues. And she makes us laugh along the way.
Gannon tells the story from the perspective of the main character, Olive, along with her three friends. We see how each woman is affected by choices and social pressure around the issue of motherhood. Their stories intersect and we see the impact on their friendship from being best friends in college to navigating adulthood with all of its responsibilities and WhatsApp groups. I like that the timeline moves backwards and forwards to capture various life events, as this can reflect how our memories work, picking out vivid moments that feel significant to us.
Olive doesn’t think she wants to have children. It has never been on her priority list but circumstances force her to make a decision about it when her long-term partner decides he definitely wants them. The scenes where they discuss and argue over this feel viscerally relatable to anyone who has gone through it. They try to bargain, but both remain torn because they love each other and know this decision just cannot be compromised on. As in this moment:
“I sat on the cold tiled floor. My throat felt lumpy with repressed sadness. My body and brain knew the truth. All I needed to do was confront it. Accept it. Think it. Say it. I just don’t want to get pregnant…I started to cry; I couldn’t stop. Because deep down I knew this could be the end of us.”
Olive looks to many different sources to try and understand her position. It feels wrong when everything around her is telling her she should want to have children. She wants to find something that makes sense, where she does not feel like an outsider, where she doesn’t feel less than those around her. Olive turns to the internet, alternative therapies, and a fertility specialist for guidance. She finds it challenging to bring up her predicament with her friends, who include a happy parent, a new parent finding motherhood difficult, and one going through IVF treatment. Yet Olive focuses on the characters trying to be empathic and honest, both with themselves and each other.
Olive experiences many of the typical responses and arguments childfree women get: But you’d make a great mother! Who will look after you when you are old? Your fears are blocking your true maternal desires. Yet Gannon presents these dynamics in a non-judgemental way. It never feels like she has an agenda to show one life choice as being better than another. Instead the story supports how we all need to the find what feels right to us.
Very relatable and easy to read, I found Olive uplifting, affirming and entertaining. Addressing themes so often not discussed openly, it can help more people making different choices feel seen and accepted, widen the perspective about deciding whether to have children, and how we each define meaning in life. I love how in it we read words like these: “Have you ever questioned that maybe there was nothing wrong with you in the first place? That nothing needed fixing? That you are right where you are meant to be? There are so many ways to live a fulfilled life. What you do, the people you impact, it’s all so valuable.”
Thank you, Margaret!
Margaret is a counsellor and psychotherapist in Ireland. She offers a specialised service called Are Kids For Me and hosts a podcast with the same name. Margaret spends her free time reading, drinking tea and cuddling with her cats, ideally all at the same time.