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Grief And Longing For A 'Figment' Of Imagination

For nine months, Elizabeth McCracken's first pregnancy resembled the stuff of a Diane Lane comedy. A quirky, almost 40-year-old writer becomes pregnant while on sabbatical with her husband in Paris. Experts at gestating novels, the two of them stutter-step into childbirth. They move to a small French village and get a midwife. They lay off the cigarettes and wine. Learning that they're having a boy, they give him an adorable nickname: Pudding.

And then, little more than a week past her due date, McCracken is told that Pudding has quietly died in utero. Like nearly 1 in every 200 pregnancies, McCracken's has ended in stillbirth. In this wrenching memoir, the author of the hilarious story collection Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry (1993) and an unforgettable novel, The Giant's House (1996), plunges readers into the void left behind when all that future-thinking — "here is where he will sleep; here is what he will wear" — runs into biological malfunction.

At first, McCracken is stunned by how matter-of-fact her loss feels. "Nothing had changed," she writes of the days after. "We'd been waiting to be transformed, and now here we were, back in our old life." As they resume their routine of writing and traveling, however, the Doppler wave of their dashed expectations broadsides them — hard, this time. They realize they want to try again.

Almost exactly one year after Pudding's death, McCracken successfully gave birth to a healthy baby boy. But the arrival of one child does not cancel out the lost possibility of another. In An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, the writer brilliantly reveals how grief, in a way, is like an act of imagination. Even though McCracken has a new son to care for, the life she envisioned with and for Pudding lingers, eternally and longingly suspended in an alternate universe.

In pushing back against the silence that surrounds stillbirth, McCracken will no doubt provide great solace to parents who have suffered similarly. But her book also beautifully does what only literature can. It takes that broken, imperfect imaginary world and gives it a permanent, perfect home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Freeman is the editor of Grantamagazine. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism has appeared in publications around the world, including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Book Review. His latest book is The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.