Angela Balcita's 'Moonface': Memoir of a mother's love and greed

February 4, 2011

"Moonface" is a memoir by Angela Balcita, who is still a comparative youngster and the mother of a little girl named Birdie. Balcita's life has been defined by her health and its various rebellions: When she was 18, she experienced kidney failure and received a transplant from her older brother. Her point of view during this part of the narrative is adolescent: She sassily compares statues of the Virgin Mary with Mrs. Butterworth, although later she's grateful for her mother's religious devotion and fervent prayers.

Wait. Am I getting off on the wrong foot here?

I can see coming up the inevitable problem of reviewing a memoir. No matter how much you try to evaluate the prose style, the structure, the "plot" and the readability, it's very hard to keep from evaluating the life itself.

Here we have a memoir by a woman who has one kidney transplant from her older brother and, about 10 years later, has another kidney transplant from her husband, and then, after she gets an MFA, she decides she wants a baby. When the first specialist she consults says, "I would not recommend it. A pregnancy probably would not work out well for you," the author is enraged and has a tantrum in the doctor's parking lot: "How dare he? I mean, how dare he, right? He doesn't know how it is going to work out."

Balcita is a lady who wants what she wants. Her husband suffered severe infections when he offered up his kidney. A pregnancy would place that transplanted kidney in severe jeopardy, but she wants a baby. She doesn't want a surrogate, and she disdains the way ethnic babies are marketed for adoption.

Besides, she wants the experience of giving birth, right down to a vaginal delivery. "I want to push," she says. When she does become pregnant, her husband shakes her hand. "Congratulations," he says, "It's what you've always wanted." It would seem, to this reader, that she's opened the best present her husband could give her and then thrown it away in favor of a baby.

Because, of course, after a short pregnancy and a delivery filled with drama, a darling little preemie named Birdie appears, and the author's second transplanted kidney gives out. Balcita, who has written about "this overwhelming feeling women get as they move into their early thirties, wanting their bodies to experience something more," is, ironically, cheated of much of the experience she so craved. Mother and daughter are sequestered in different hospitals. The author is given several blood transfusions. Although Birdie weighs only two pounds, her mother is the sicker one. Balcita wonders: "Did I bring her into this world at a disadvantage? I was afraid she wouldn't be healthy enough to make her milestones. . . . I never thought that I would be the one missing out on her important moments. Or mine. Or ours together. As selfish as it sounds, I just didn't think that they would go on without me: her first bottle feeding, her first time taking a bath."

The two grandmothers move in; her husband works himself silly, but after all that, the baby is still there, the author skirts death and a year later, an old friend from graduate school kicks in another kidney. In theory, this could go on forever.

You can look at "Moonface" as an autobiographical novel, and you might feel differently about it. Or you can think of it as a memoir, or more simply yet, a story. I don't know what we're supposed to feel when we read this. The last pages are draped in plentiful swaths of mother-love. And everyone knows that motherhood and highway safety are sacrosanct in this country. But when Balcita writes, "I am a greedy girl," something in the reader can't help but agree.

bookworld@washpost.com

See reviews books for The Post every Friday.

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MOONFACE

By Angela Balcita

Harper Perennial. 222 pp.

Paperback, $13.99

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