For millions of women around the world a thin blue line means one thing: “You’re pregnant.” Novelist Sophie Mackintosh cleverly subverts that trope in her new book, “Blue Ticket,” in which the title color signifies a chit given to characters whose futures will never include pregnancy and childbirth.
Mackintosh’s debut, “The Water Cure,” focused on a family with three daughters living on an island just offshore from a large city. They fled there after an unspecified disease decimated civilization, and the parents endeavor, through a series of hideous tests and feats, to inure their young girls to male attention. The author’s style is spare but thoughtful. Every detail enhances the plot and the atmosphere at once.
So it is with “Blue Ticket,” which opens on an Ishiguro-esque society with strict rules in place about the roles of women and men. At menarche, young women are taken from their parents, given a medical examination, and then presented with a locket containing either a white ticket (marriage, motherhood) or a blue ticket (no children, career). They are given a few essentials and released into the countryside, told they must find their way to a new home/city and decide how they want to live and what kind of education and training they wish to receive.
Calla, the novel’s protagonist, receives a blue ticket, struggles out of the wilderness, and eventually becomes a well-paid chemist with plenty of privilege and a very active social life. “If you were a blue-ticket your life could change at any time, you could make it change at any time, and we were alternately complacent and anxious about the possibilities contained within that freedom,” she says, before heading out for a night of bad liquor and worse sex.
Something much bigger is missing, and Calla knows what it is, for her: having a baby. One night, with the aid of alcohol and through a lot of pain, she rips out her state-sanctioned birth-control device (never precisely named, but some form of IUD), and soon becomes pregnant via her latest partner, known only as “R.” Like her, he is terrified when she announces her pregnancy; unlike her, he wants nothing to do with it.
Cared for by Doctor A since her teen years, Calla hopes he will help her, but his form of help consists of giving her a head start from the “enforcers” they both know will eventually catch her. Off heads Calla, with fewer supplies this time, but a car and money for hotels and restaurants. Running low on food and gas, she encounters Marisol, who is also a pregnant “blue ticket.” The women join forces, eventually finding and sheltering two other pregnant renegades, Lila and Therese. They hope to eventually reach “the border” and move on to a country run by a different system where they can raise their babies in peace.
For some authors the plot would now be thick enough. Let the quartet eke out survival as their bellies grow and see what happens. But Mackintosh understands that while there may be just two ticket colors in this society, there can be more than two sides to every story. First, Calla and Marisol fall for each other, their romance creating tension with the others, yet providing a sort of romantic haze allowing them to ignore the changes their bodies are experiencing.
Second, when the group encounters Valerie, another woman on the run, they learn a very different story, that of a white-ticket wearer who aborted her pregnancy. Valerie opens the narrative to the idea of restrictions on both sides, reminding us that being pro-choice means allowing women to control their own bodies whether they want to become mothers, or live child-free. Her story, coming late and remaining brief, jars readers back to the truth that we easily fall for the oldest trick in the fiction catalog, sympathy for the characters placed in front of us.
We’re not in danger of losing sympathy for Calla, however, especially once she realizes her water has broken and she’s in full labor. Mackintosh’s description of Calla’s childbirth will resonate with those who have been through it, and properly terrify those who haven’t. “Pain. . . opened me up at the ribs, the pelvis, like I was being disarticulated on the butcher’s block.” Calla becomes a wild beast concerned only with her own body, its pain and suffering, and the baby who will leave it, a powerful contrast with modern Western births conducted in hospitals with machines and instruments involved.
What may be most memorable about “Blue Ticket” lies in the concept of women and agency. Calla’s society allows women so little choice about procreation, yet expects all women to have leisure time — the blue-ticket holders to party and hook up with multiple partners, the white-ticket holders to take care of themselves with shopping and entertainment. (In a strange, not-fully-explained minor point, fathers do all the child care and as they move about town laden with car seats and strollers, are given treats of money, food, and toys.)
Especially the concept of mothers and agency. “You’ll do anything for your child and I mean anything,” says Marisol, “Worse things than you’ve ever imagined.” Once another body has inhabited a body, will the original body ever be the same? What about the original mind? “The baby wants to survive at all costs, the baby doesn’t care about you,” says Valerie. Sophie Mackintosh lays bare many of the fears and realities that face any society’s women as they contemplate when their choices begin, and where they might end.
By Sophie Mackintosh
Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance book critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.