Anne Finger’s “A Woman, In Bed” evades easy classification. It’s not really a romance novel, and calling it historical fiction would be reductive. Set in France in the half-century following World War I, “A Woman, In Bed” follows Simone as she moves through the varied bodily experiences of womanhood that are often left undiscussed: menstruation, motherhood, abortion, lust, masturbation and sexual experimentation.

“A Woman, In Bed” does not have particularly compelling or nuanced characters. The plot isn’t extremely engaging, and the prose is often stilted. Instead, the strength of this book lies in its methodological approach to writing about female sexuality and corporeality. Finger’s narrative is an unabashed and unflinching chronicle of the aspects of female life that have long been considered improper material for literature because they are too mundane or too culturally or politically controversial.

Finger’s discussions of abortion are especially transgressive, and the frankness with which she renders the procedure and its aftermath is almost lurid: “The doctor flung the curette down on the table in exasperation. Bits of blood and tissue flew away from it, dotting his glasses, his cheek.” A later abortion, this one performed by a female doctor, is less emotionally draining for Simone, and also less physically painful. The doctor instructs Simone that if she runs a fever and needs to go to the hospital to “Be sure to tell them you passed something small and white. You saw a tiny hand or foot. That it fell into the toilet, and you were so distraught you flushed it away.” The physicality of abortion is described in detail, as is the emotional aftermath. Simone is upset and mourns the children she did not have, but then she remembers the children she does have, the ones who barely have enough days-old bread to keep from starving, and her sadness — not regret — takes on a different tone. Finger does not condemn or defend Simone; instead, she simply describes, and lets the reader interpret as they like.

Similarly unflinching are Finger’s descriptions of the female body when it is simply existing. Simone “scraped the nail of her pinkie finger along her gums, along her teeth, smearing the whitish stuff that caught beneath her nail,” her breasts “began to jet milk” and she has “fetid breath in the morning.” The explicitness of these descriptions are unusual — they are not sexual, and they do not further character development, world-building or plot. Instead, they advance Finger’s quest to illustrate the richly pleasurable, painful and often numbingly mundane experience of inhabiting a female body.

The novel is often lethargic and stagnant, probably due to the lack of character development and the clunky plot. The moments of clarity are all the more powerful given their murky surroundings; they emerge from the slushy prose like tiny windows into the novel Finger could have written with a bit more storyboarding and editing. “A Woman, In Bed” is worth the read just for these little gems. Finger deftly maneuvers between desire and circumstance, candidly describing the choices that Simone makes in a way that is neither opportunistic nor cruel. It’s rare to find an insistently feminist novel or even one willing to fully describe the complexly entangled pains and joys of womanhood. The frequent shortcomings of this book are especially disappointing given the scarcity of novels that even attempt to describe the embodied experience of being a woman with a grace and empathy that illuminates rather than obscures. “A Woman, In Bed” proves that avoiding these subjects would be a loss — it’s far better (and more interesting) to valiantly try and fall short.

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