A debut novel following an adjunct professor whose days are disrupted by a miscarriage, forcing her to reckon with shame, relationships, the passage of time, the meaning of endings, and the illusion that our minds may free us from our bodies. A witty, intelligent story of an American woman on the edge, by a brilliant new voice in fiction.
THE LIFE OF THE MIND: A Novel
by Christine Smallwood
Hogarth Press, March 2021
As an adjunct professor of English with a 4-3 course load, Dorothy feels “like a janitor in the temple who continued to sweep because she had no idea what else to do but who had lost her belief in the essential sanctity of the enterprise.” No one but her partner knows that she’s just had a miscarriage, not even her therapists—Dorothy being the kind of person who begins seeing a second because she’s too conflict-averse to break things off with the first. It’s not so much that Dorothy is ashamed of the miscarriage itself as she is of the sense of purpose the prospect of motherhood had provided, of how much she’d wanted it. The freedom not to be a mother is one of the victories of feminism. So why does she feel like a failure? (That’s another thing she’s ashamed of.)
In the tradition of Sheila Heti, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Rachel Cusk, THE LIFE OF THE MIND is a novel about endings: of youth, of aspirations, of possibility, of the illusion that our minds can ever free us from the tyranny of our bodies. And yet our minds are all we have to make sense of a world largely out of our control—which is to say a world without us at the center as protagonists; a world where things happen, but there is no plot. And so Dorothy must make do with what she has, as the weeks pass and the bleeding subsides. If that sounds depressing, it isn’t; in fact, it’s often hilarious. Most of all, it’s real. In literature—as Dorothy well knows—stories end. But life, as they say, goes on.
Christine Smallwood’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, n+1, and Vice. Her reviews, essays, and cultural reporting have been published in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Bookforum, T, and The New York Times Magazine, where she is a contributing writer. From 2014-2017 she wrote the “New Books” column for Harper’s, and has been an editor at The Nation. She has a PhD in English from Columbia University, is a co-founder of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and is a Fellow at The New York Institute for the Humanities.