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On the Front Lines of Infertility

Brockes, an Englishwoman living in New York and the author of a previous memoir, “She Left Me the Gun,” about her mother, is so smart and tartly charming (think “Fleabag” meets Helen Fielding) that it doesn’t much matter that you sense an obligation to make a word count as she vacillates about some aspects of her story, particularly her relationship with her sort-of-partner, L. It’s hard to fault her: While Brockes is another woman of privilege (and diligent savings), as a 21st-century freelance journalist she lives like a polar bear, hopping from one glossy magazine ice floe to another. She’d likely be the first to admit she’s dancing for her supper in this memoir. L is identified only by an initial because she “is not a writer and finds the endless use to which I put my own life distasteful.”

When the story begins, L has just had a baby boy. She’s stable and kind but they aren’t an easy match. L sees Brockes as frustratingly without needs; Brockes is initially baffled by why that would be a problem. They once had a fight over assembling a bed from West Elm and didn’t speak for a week. (Could someone please make a TV show about these women?) What Brockes wants is a sort of parallel-play style of parenting, where L raises her son and Brockes her own child, with the two women living near enough to each other for mutual support — “a Venn diagram of two independent families.” Brockes offsets potential confusion with this simple declarative: “She did not want a baby as an expression of her love for me. I did not want a baby as a reflection of my love for her.”

The dilemma of whether parallel parenting will work with L long term isn’t answered (at book’s end, they’re living that Venn diagram dream, in the same apartment building, on different floors, so fingers crossed). Brockes creates dramatic tension by debating the virtues of using known sperm donors as opposed to strangers, and whether to rely on the British health care system — socialized but slow — or her adopted country’s for assisted reproduction. She settles on America, “where no one with adequate resources waits for anything.” At 37, Brockes is far more skeptical going into the process than Katkin is, attuned to overly optimistic talk at the first clinic she visits: “Patient denial is an act of psychological defense; doctor denial is scalping.” (She, too, identifies a doctor only by an initial, although her issues with Dr. B mostly revolve around his admiration for Julian Assange.)

Brockes starts with the assumption that the drugs she takes to stimulate her ovaries are bad, but a necessary means to the end. L is more cautious, almost as if she has read Katkin’s story, advising fewer drugs after a failed attempt at intrauterine insemination. But when Brockes produces a year’s worth of eggs after using drugs to stimulate her ovaries, she struts “around feeling great about myself on account of my MASSIVE EGG STASH. Suddenly, I understand why men go in for penis enlargements.” She, like Katkin, experiences hideous swelling from ovarian hyperstimulation, although hers ends happily, with pregnancy. Twins, no less.

It’s in these passages that Brockes gets at the undeniable but typically unspoken competitiveness among women when it comes to fertility. One child would be much easier, and cheaper, and place her on an even playing field with L and her one child. And yet, “way down deep in my bones I am cheering them on,” she says of her impending babies. To be fertile is to be celebrated. To be multiply fertile, even better. This frank admission of self-satisfaction in “good” numbers is to be reminded of how agonizing it must have been for Katkin, the Type A, to be continually held back after the starting gun in the race to reproduction. There’s “ability” right there in her title. Hold these two books up against each other and, certainly, “Conceivability” is primarily a story about technology as a means to beat infertility. But “An Excellent Choice” isn’t purely a story about love. They’re both accounts from the front lines of reproduction, a place where there is no such thing as absolute fairness.

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