BOOK: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth (2002)

For those of you who missed it, there was just a delightful new BBC series running on PBS here in the US titled Call the Midwife, about a group of midwives (some nuns, some not) working out of a convent in London’s East End in the 1950s.  I enjoyed (most of) the series very much, so, naturally, when it ended, I decided to check out this book, the first in a set of three (I think?) memoirs written by the “main character,” Jenny Worth.

A lot of the first half of the book will be familiar to anyone who watched the series — some of the same midwifery cases are presented (for example, the husband and wife with 25 children who don’t speak each other’s language) and many of the characters are recognizable too (oh, Chummy, I love you so!).  The book also features more historical background on the evolution of the practice of midwifery and the striking poverty of the East End.

The problem is that what I enjoyed the most about the TV series was essentially every character except for Jenny, who I mostly just found cloying and annoying (hey, that rhymes!).  Chummy, a class-A awkward underdog, was obviously my favorite, and several of the nuns were also wonderful, engaging characters.  Unfortunately, these people all played much larger roles in the BBC series than they do in the book.

The episode I found the most yawn-inducing of the TV series, by comparison, was the one that focused almost completely on Ms. Worth and her complicated love life, and naturally, since this book is HER memoir, there’s an awful lot of that kind of stuff in it.  Go figure.  I didn’t find her all that interesting as a narrator, either in the series or in the book, and in terms of the traditional “fish out of water” observer, she comes off as more patronizing and judgmental than curious and compassionate.  Though her horror over the conditions in which she finds herself working (the slums of London, essentially) was honest, she never seems to shake that horror off long enough to see through the grime and disease.  She’s judgmental of the women and judgmental of the way they live their lives (why can’t they just CLEAN UP, she wonders an awful lot), and despite her increasing experience over the pages of her story, she never seems to grow very much.  Additionally, she’s not much of a deep thinker.  She doesn’t ponder the women or their lives to try to make sense of them — she merely describes them, and mostly with distaste.

Plus, as you’ll realize by about the third page, though Ms. Worth is definitely a midwife who wrote a book, she is NOT a writer who worked as a midwife.  If you catch my drift.  (If you don’t, what I mean is, BOY, is this book badly written!)

That said, I did enjoy reading this, believe it or not, mostly for the brief snippets of the lives of everyone else Jenny encountered.  I think other fans of the series will have a good time with it as well, as long as you give yourselves license to skip tedious chapters at will. (Anything that appears to be focused on Jenny, her family, or her old boyfriend, you should flip past as quickly as possible.)   The stories about the women of the East End — their courage, their grit, their spirit, their tenacity — those are the real treasures in this book. And they alone are worth swimming through the muck of mixed-up verb tenses to get to know.

It’s too bad Chummy (luf!) didn’t write this memoir, I thought to myself as I turned the last page.  I have a feeling it would’ve been a vastly different book, and greatly improved.  I’m looking forward to season two of the series, but am unlikely to pick up the other memoirs in Worth’s series.  Disappointing!

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