When Joan finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she is stunned by her husband's delight, his instant betrayal of their pact. She makes a fateful, selfless decision then, to embrace her unintentional family.
The weight of this life-shaping choice and its ramifications for a woman who knows that she made the wrong choice are the tensions that drive The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Cherise Wolas’ remarkable debut novel … Wolas excavates the years-long emotional tumult of a woman who loves her children but loves her career much more, a reality that taints Joan’s relationships with her husband and two sons and roils her self-identity. Joan resents that her constant family obligations divert her from writing, a resentment that breeds both regret that she has a husband and children and guilt that she feels that way … Perhaps most interesting is Wolas’ interrogation of personal ambition, which she examines not only from the vantage of society’s double standard toward the demonstrated career ambitions of a mother of young children versus a father, but also by looking at how personality and individual experiences determine the resilience of ambition.
Cleverly, Wolas opens the novel with an essay from a literary magazine about Ashby and her work, providing an overview of an exceptional career, including excerpts from both of Joan’s books. Before we come to know Joan Ashby, the person, we have already met Joan Ashby, the author. This second identity is the one our heroine connects to more keenly … What slows the narrative down are the excerpts from her work. It’s frustrating to read mere portions of a short story or novel, in part because they require we take leave of Joan’s vivid fictional life. Joan Ashby’s writing is a touch amateur; for instance, raindrops are ‘big as cats and dogs,’ and her characters read like fantasies of free spirits more than actual people. It’s hard to believe her fiction would have influenced the literary conversation or made her an international best seller.
Resurrection is not a book about an unwilling mother whose worldview is entirely changed once she gives birth. The act of raising a child itself is not ennobling: when Joan’s children are little, she thinks about her life’s ‘soft poetry and hard tediousness, its spectacular, love-ridden times measured against meaningless hours and days and weeks and months.’ It’s a description that could fit pretty much any life, poetic in its averageness … Motherhood is a convenient metaphor, but it feels essentialist—aren’t men capable of that same nourishing self-sacrifice? (Or shouldn’t they be?) Giving unstintingly to someone demanding help sounds noble, but also a little too much like what got Joan into this mess in the first place … The Resurrection of Joan Ashby tries to get at the uplifting power of creation, but in doing so it ends up becoming what so much art created in a vacuum is: self-indulgent and out of touch. And the book ends with a moment that sums that up perfectly.