I try to write in this space about books I have enjoyed, books I’d be happy to hand to you if we ran into each other on the street or if you walked into my classroom. I don’t see the point of trashing other people’s hard work, and if I truly hate something, I won’t write about it. I will write about books I have reservations about, and I try to articulate them as clearly as possible. I wasn’t sure when I finished this book whether I should write about it or not. I did not hate it, but neither can I really recommend it. I felt very conflicted about it, but after searching online and finding only positive reviews, I felt like I had an obligation to put out what I hope is a more nuanced take. In other words, what I wish I had read before shelling out money for this book. So here you are, a review for Ars Botanica. It is wordy, because I want to be fair to the author and to you readers as well.
Ars Botanica: A Field Guide to Loss, Tim Taranto
To write and publish your own abortion story is one thing. To write and publish someone else’s must be considered an entirely separate thing, even if you mean it as a beautiful tribute. This is especially true in our modern, divided political climate where the subject of abortion raises intense passions and subjects people to real-world violence. To write an abortion story about someone else and make them fully discoverable on the internet with little effort must be considered, at its very best, willfully ignorant. This is the essence of what bothers me about this book. Let me back up and tell you more.
There are nothing but glowing reviews of this book as far as the eye can see, many from people dealing with their own grief. I have walked through that valley, and if this book helped or helps you with your grief, then bless you, and you don’t need to read my cranky words about it.
First, the good. It has a gorgeous cover, and the book is square and very arty-looking. There are illustrations and copious whitespace throughout, depictions of the natural world, and some quite beautiful writing. I would never deny that Mr. Taranto has a gift for language. There are poems, a bit of a play, and prose sections all artfully woven together. It is fun to read, in that sense.
All of the reviews seem to focus on the letters to his unborn daughter, Catalpa. And indeed, that is a moving and significant part of this book. The daughter that was aborted, that he named (and possibly gendered?) after the fact, and whom he genuinely grieves. He has every right to grieve, to tell that story, and to feel those feelings. I wish him solace on that journey.
And yet, the main focus of the book appeared to be the loss of “her,” Catalpa’s mother and his ex-girlfriend. When I started the book, I assumed she had died, and perhaps that colored my interpretation of the rest of the book. He tells us that she was his first love, and aptly describes their early relationship. It appears to have been a brief, but very intense affair, marred by a bicycle accident that leaves her dependent on him. This is simultaneous with the unintended pregnancy and followed by the agreed-upon abortion. When she leaves him, it is unsurprising, although I was moved by his grief at this loss.
Surely he has every right to tell this story. And yet. She is not dead, she is still living, and one presumes has probably moved on with her life. We are given no details of her journey after their break up. Does she take this book, as he clearly intends it, as a beautiful gift memorializing their shared loss?
He writes nothing but rapturous praise of her. But I cannot help but wonder how she feels about it. With no point of comparision other than myself, I know I would absolutely hate it if an ex-boyfriend had written this book about me. It is an intensely intimate book that reveals intensely intimate details. This is one thing if the subject is dead, another if she is still living.
Art being what it is, this would not bother me as much as if I hadn’t realized through vaguely alert reading that she was completely identifiable. Throughout the text Mr. Taranto always refes to her as “her,” but he does not use a pseudonym and gives plenty of identifying information. I do not want in any way to contribute to this or send the wolves to this woman’s door. I won’t say more about it other than I am a lousy internet sleuth but a capable reader. With just the information provided in the book it took me less than a minute to find this woman online. She was the first three Google hits of my first search.
Perhaps she consented to this, perhaps she welcomes the book as a gift. But I can’t say for certain, and that is what makes me uneasy. We must be careful with our words, or we can use them to unintentionally hurt those we love the most. I wish Mr. Taranto luck on his journey, and I hope he writes more as his language is lovely, but I can’t say I really recommend this book.