Mercy is a Mindset: Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh

Choosing to read Jennifer Haigh’s “Mercy Street” on the heels of stupid Texas doing stupid things was an accident, and not one that can be repeated by you all, since it doesn’t come out until February of next year.

But I really wish you could. We need to stay fired up, ladies.

“Mercy Street” is the tale of a Boston women’s health clinic and one of its lead counselors, Claudia. In her early 40s and grieving the loss of a less than stellar mother, she’s pretty much functioning on the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other plan until something or someone snaps her out of her funk.

Claudia spends her days counseling women from all walks—young and scared, young and nonchalant, women with children, women who waited too long to seek help—mustering up the energy to deal with everyone’s emotional pain but her own. And facing the crowd of anti-choice advocates on her clinic’s doorsteps every day.

One face in the crowd? Anthony, a younger guy with a penchant for online friendships that led him to stake out the clinic and take photos for Excelsior11 (aka Victor Prine), another anti-choice zealot that runs a Hall of Shame website from his doomsday compound in Pennsylvania.

Anthony and Claudia also share a friend in Timmy, the local weed dealer with a, well, not a heart of gold, but at least his heart’s kind of in the right place. He’s trying to figure out how to fund a legal business venture so his teenage son can move north from Florida and live with him. Long live the laundromat!

Haigh takes great care in interweaving these four characters’ lives in and around each other, so that the pace of the novel is not too fast, not too slow, but honest to goodness just right. You don’t want to put it down, but the breaks are there to be able to do just that and pick up where you left off an hour or a day later.

And while the pros and cons of abortion (Victor is a whack job, so get ready!) are there and ripe for book club discussion, for me, the heart of the story is Claudia’s inability to make a relationship stick and how that’s tied to her own upbringing and possibly the foster children her mom took into their homes and essentially left Claudia to raise. You spend your formative years making your best Cheesy Ramen for someone that ultimately leaves you high and dry, and it’s easy to see why Claudia might be averse to deeply formed connections.

Props to Haigh for making me care about Boston winters, classic cars and all-night weed binges. “Mercy Street” is a beautifully written novel and should be on your TBR list next year.

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