Artifact by Arlene Heyman

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Lottie (or Dr Charlotte Kristin Hart Levinson, to give her full name), the protagonist of 77-year-old New York City psychiatrist Arlene Heyman’s debut novel, is determined to make it in science. Even in the 1980s, when the narrative opens, she has the feeling that as a woman she has to fight for professional success because she won’t play the game of tit-for-tat favours. Grants and promotions pass her by, and she is preoccupied with a recently rejected paper based on her research into the rat endocrine system. One referee writes, “This paper is not acceptable for publication since it is replete with accidental and random findings. It is no more than a collection of artifacts.” As she bathes her young sons one evening, she imagines the retort she’ll make in her letter to the editor: “all one ever deals with is artifact.”

In the generic more than the scientific meaning of the word, the book is indeed about artefacts – as in works by Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively and Carol Shields, the goal is to unearth the traces of a woman’s life. Lottie’s story is a case study of the feminist project to reconcile motherhood and career. She grows up the daughter of a small-town mayor in Michigan and discovers sex early with local farmer’s son Charlie Hart. A teen pregnancy nearly derails her plans, but she is able to join Charlie in attending the University of Michigan and then – as his wife – follows him to Texas for his graduate studies. In one of the most memorable sequences, Lottie brings home a dead cat to dissect on a Christmas break; her father won’t let her do it inside, so she works on the porch in near-freezing conditions. In Texas she gets a hospital lab tech job, but motherhood forces her to find creative solutions like bringing Evelyn to sleep with her in an on-call room when she works overnight.

The novel’s long chapters are almost like discrete short stories from different points in Lottie’s life, making this akin to a linked story collection. It proceeds chronologically apart from the opening chapter, which with the final chapter serves to bookend the action with the events of 1984. The opening chapter, in particular, functions as a perfectly formed short story: set in a hot New York City, it introduces Lottie and her second husband, a conductor and music teacher named Jake; her daughter, Evelyn; his daughter, Ruth; and their two boys together, Simon and Davy. The way her attention bounces from her children back to her work, even when she’s away from the lab, reflects women’s divided lives. Then, plunging back into Lottie’s past, Heyman follows her through years of schooling and menial jobs, through a broken marriage and a period of single parenthood, and into a new relationship.

World events don’t often intrude on the narrative, apart from Lottie attending an anti-Vietnam War meeting and smoking marijuana with a paediatrician she dates after leaving Charlie. But even as the book moves across its several decades, there’s no escaping a wider culture that devalues women’s experience. Heyman portrays this as a subconscious message that infiltrates even women’s mindsets: “It amazed Lottie how much it continued to amaze her that social strictures had crushed women throughout the centuries; some dark part of her assumed that women were inferior.” She asks herself whether “women have vocations besides motherhood,” and misogyny is especially strong in the sciences. In a radio interview tacked onto the novel like an appendix, Lottie still feels patronised and defined by her personal life rather than her work – and this is in a conversation with a female interviewer.

There were aspects of the writing that didn’t work for me – the sex scenes (including a rape) are explicit and clinical; the dialogue doesn’t always feel natural, particularly when children are involved; and the book ends on a joke about a trans person, which seems gauche and dated – and I found the book as a whole more intellectually noteworthy than engaging as a story. It took me four months to read, though that was off and on and alongside many other books. I wondered throughout to what extent this might be autofiction about Heyman’s experience of being a woman in a scientific field, but the Acknowledgements reveal that it is perhaps more biographical, inspired by the life of one of her closest friends.

Nearly 40 years in the gestation and carefully honed down from the original 800-page manuscript, this is a piercing – if not notably subtle – story of women’s choices and limitations in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’d recommend it to fans of Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin (whose protagonist, a poet rather than a scientist, undergoes similar trials) and The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer who writes for the TLS and Wasafiri and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Arlene Heyman, Artifact (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1526619402, 288 pp., hardback.

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