A novelist explores sex, music and motherhood with a little help from Amy Winehouse
On the Shelf
By Elisa Albert
Avid Reader: 416 pages, $28
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More than anything, Aviva Rosner wants a baby.
In “Human Blues,” Elisa Albert’s fifth novel, the protagonist is trying “to reconcile where she comes from and what her own values are,” Albert says during a video interview. Aviva, a fierce and successful folk-rock singer brought up in Los Angeles, is married to a high-school history teacher in Albany, N.Y. The far-flung state capital is an unexpected stop on her life’s grand tour.
“Human Blues” unfolds over a different kind of grand tour, through nine months of Aviva’s menstrual cycles, as she copes again and again with what she calls “the bleed.” Aviva and Sam try and try and try to conceive a child the old-fashioned way. Many urge her to take different paths to parenthood, like artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and adoption. But, Albert says, even though Aviva “is somebody who could get what she wants, she can’t get past her own intuitive reality, doesn’t want to override her belief that her baby should come into the world without forcing conception.”
Something about Aviva’s struggles with fame, musicianship and living in the world as a “good girl” reminded Albert of another musician: the gone-too-soon British singer Amy Winehouse. The title of “Human Blues” comes from mix CDs Winehouse made for friends, so it’s fitting that the cover incorporates a kind of saintly iconography of Winehouse, with her trademark black bouffant hair, a Star of David pendant and the phases of the moon forming a halo.
“We have enough penis rockets on the front page of the newspaper, don’t we?” says Albert, when asked about the cover. “So to show somebody who, when she was alive and making all of her ruinous mistakes, was not looked on with approval but then perished and was elevated to angelic martyr status? I needed to explore that. Not in admiration of her path or her choices, but because she refused to play by anybody else’s rules. And that made her artistically profoundly important.”
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Aviva is entangled with the historical Winehouse and so, on a different level, is Albert, who actually met Winehouse’s “mum” and stepfather in England while on a residency. “I reached out to Janice Winehouse, just as Aviva does in the book. Janice makes it really clear she doesn’t want to talk to journalists. Luckily, I’m not one!” Albert laughs. “She and her husband are totally OK to go have coffee with anyone they deem a true fan. It’s like the longest continuously running shiva where we all love and value and mourn the same person.”
Aviva and her creator, have another Winehouse fixation in common: For both Amy’s Jewishness is paramount.
“She was really one of us, and we don’t see that too often,” Albert says. “But if she didn’t have the goods, it wouldn’t matter. What I’m writing about in ‘Human Blues’ is authenticity. It’s about doing the work. The work is hard. The work is not always rewarding. In fact, the work is not rewarding. The rewards come later, you know what I mean?”
Albert took seven years to write the novel, she says, dropping an F-bomb to emphasize how hard she worked. “We had to cut at least 100 pages. But this kind of work should be where we’re allowed to just go to crazy places and then rein it back in and find the equilibrium.”
Aviva’s long, smart, funny rants about menstruation, infertility, bodily functions and sex in its many guises are carefully constructed; through them, Albert wants to break down the walls of ignorance that surround birthing bodies. “It’s shocking to me that we aren’t raised with much more knowledge about these things, whether it’s attaining pregnancy, avoiding pregnancy, attending to our own energy levels. … It’s so primal and important.” Once she’d given birth, Albert became a part-time doula and learned about her own monthly cycles “so that I could accommodate myself and make life a little bit easier for myself and my loved ones.”
The end of Aviva’s story is only one of the novel’s surprises. She resists and gives in to many different kinds of temptation through these nine cycles. But one of the most powerful drugs she has to decide whether to take is pure, uncut sexual desire — Aviva’s are among the wettest panties of literature. Albert laughs long and hard hearing that, but she also takes it seriously. “Because female sexuality is horrifically dangerous and threatens the status quo and all systems would crumble if women knew our power!” she says.
Albert mentions an essay she wrote for an upcoming anthology that’s partly about the Jewish laws of purity, including the mandate that women live separately during menstruation. Such customs “get a bad rap,” she says. “People think it’s about deeming women unclean, whereas it’s more about an enlightened view of humans who cycle and bear children, about seeing their innate holiness.”
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The essay — and her new novel — led Albert to ponder her own maternity.
“When I had a child at 30, for my social circle it was like a teen pregnancy. Among my peers, I might as well have been 15. It was unsettling,” she says. “But then, once you have a baby, especially in the community that I come from in California, it became: ‘When are you having another?’ If you exist in one of these bodies, you’re never done. You’re never good enough. You’re never mom enough. You’re never anything enough.
“There should be a fairness to living in a particular kind of body, but there isn’t. Some of us are going to suffer, some of us will die too young, it’s not fair but here we are.”
Albert speaks from the Albany home where she lives with her spouse, their son and a recently acquired mutt. While she still lives a Jewish life, Albert follows her own ideas about faith. “We’re all struggling as a species, you know?” she says. “What do we want to take with us from the past as we reinvent the world day by day? We actually do still need certain kinds of rituals, traditions and rootedness. It’s a constant personal and collective struggle.”
Even though we’d like to keep talking about fiction, fertility and “Human Blues,” the time is soccer-mom-o’clock. I joke that Albert’s son, who recently celebrated his bar mitzvah, must be thinking, “Today I am a man, but my mother better get me to practice on time.”
“Absolutely. Like, ‘Mom is the best chauffeur,’” she says. “There’s always going to be stuff you don’t choose in life, but the question has become, for me, ‘how do you make a beautiful life anyway?’”
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