Review | Looking for Jane, by Heather Marshall

LookingForJaneLooking for Jane is about motherhood, and women’s rights over our own bodies. It follows the story of three women across three timelines: Evelyn Taylor in 1971, who was forced to give up her baby for adoption at St Agnes, a Catholic home for unwed mothers; Nancy Mitchell in 1980, who learns she’s adopted, and that her parents have kept it secret all her life; and Angela Creighton in 2017, who works at an antiques shop and discovers a letter from Nancy’s adoptive mother, mailed when she died in 2010.

The lives of all three women intersect over the years, and the crux of the story lies in the Jane network. Abortion wasn’t legalized in Canada until 1988; before then, many women were limited to underground, and often dangerous, means to end unwanted pregnancies. After one such procedure sends Nancy’s cousin to the ER, Nancy learns that if a future need arises, they can simply “ask for Jane.” Jane is a codeword for an underground network of courageous women, including some doctors and nurses, who use legit medical knowledge and resources to provide safe abortions.

The three characters’ stories converge around the theme of motherhood and women’s rights over their own bodies: In the 80s, Evelyn has grown up to be a doctor, and she and her nurse Alice become key members of the Jane network. Nancy uses their services in the 80s, then, in a desire to give back, becomes a volunteer Jane as well. And in 2017, Angela and her wife are undergoing fertility treatments. Angela’s investigation reveals that Nancy’s mother may be Margaret, who was Evelyn’s best friend at St. Agnes.

The Jane network may be fictional, but the author’s afterword tells us many similar underground networks did exist before abortion was legalized. I love that this story was set in Toronto, and that it featured familiar places like Ossington subway station and St Joe’s Hospital. I’m not very familiar with these parts of history, so it was really cool to step back several decades in time and see how the city may have been.

The St Agnes home where women were forced to give up their babies is also fictional, but like the Jane network, is based on an amalgamation of similar homes. I especially love that in her afterword, the author acknowledges the racist underpinnings of such practices, and encourages readers to self-educate about events like the Sixties Scoop, where Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families. So much of historical fiction is about white people’s experiences, and while Looking for Jane does feature main characters who are white, I like that the author acknowledges how similar policies were implemented differently for Indigenous persons.

Wherever you stand on the topic of abortion, I doubt this novel will change your mind. As someone who’s very much pro-choice, I came away from this novel with so much sympathy for all the women who were forced to rely on unsafe means to end their pregnancies, and so much admiration for those who, like the fictional Janes, helped give women safer options. I’m fortunate enough to live at a time and a country where such safe options are readily available to me, but I recognize that’s not the same everywhere in the world, and my heart goes out to women who don’t have that kind of access.

In her afterword, the author says she once thought this story was about abortion, but then realized it’s really about motherhood, and I think that’s very accurate. The novel does include characters who make the choice not to be mothers at all, and the narration does present this choice as equally valid. But mostly, through its three narrators, the novel shows how much richer an experience motherhood could be when this state is freely chosen. Evelyn wanted to be a mother; her baby was a product of true love. Her friend Margaret’s baby was a product of rape, but Margaret wanted to keep the baby as well. Both their choices were taken away by the nuns who forced them to sign adoption papers. Nancy’s story shows the contrast between an unwanted pregnancy, and one that happens when the person is ready and eager to be a parent. And Angela’s story of fertility treatments forms yet another piece of the spectrum, where someone actively wants to be a parent, yet biology may not make that possible.

The anti-abortion debate often presents the topic as an all or nothing dichotomy — either women want to be mothers or they don’t. But reality is much more complex than that. Many women who get abortions may already be mothers, or may choose to become mothers later on. Looking for Jane doesn’t quite show the full spectrum of that complexity, but it does show multiple facets of it, which I liked. More than the dichotomy between motherhood and non-motherhood, Looking for Jane frames the dichotomy around choices — do you have a choice over your own body, or is someone else (the state, the Church, your family) taking that choice away from you? In all cases, the novel very strongly supports you having the right to choose for yourself, and provides us with sensitive and textured examples of how such stories can play out.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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