Reading Julia Leigh’s new book Avalanche: A Love Story stirred up many emotions and memories. Leigh, a successful screenwriter and author embarked on a long, difficult quest to bear a child, first with her husband, then with a known donor. Moving from her husband’s vasectomy reversal to the first flush of hope to disappointment and divorce along the road to eventually multiple cycles of IVF, Leigh chronicles her journey to letting go of her dream.
One of the parts I loved about Avalanche was Leigh’s beautiful writing as she unsparingly documents the reactions of her friends and family, procedures, clinics, and interactions. The prose comes across as almost ethereal initially, but there’s some sharpness in the mix. Leigh has a knack for dropping the most devastating lines almost casually. Leigh notes a Bentley in the MD parking of a clinic in a single sentence without further comment, but the juxtaposition with her own significant financial outlays is jarring.
Avalanche captures well the quixotic mixture of hope and fear that often accompanies infertility treatment and IVF. There’s no doubt that entering a fertility clinic involves a certain amount of hope upfront, a certain fundamental belief that this will work, somehow. Otherwise, who would go through the physical, emotional, and financial difficulties of IVF? I nodded in total recognition as Leigh goes over the few statistics she could find, considers her chances based on those, and then talks about how she was convinced that she would be the exception. It’s at once familiar and heartbreaking.
As Leigh gets further into treatments, she talks about the ‘extras’ she could – for a price, of course – add on to her IVF cycles to attempt to increase her chances of success. None of them fully proven, but showing the possibility of helping. I remember clearly feel the difficulty of making some of these choices (about ICSI in my case), wondering if this might be just enough to tip the cycle over the edge into a baby.
The moment in Avalanche, however, where I literally gasped out loud comes near the end. Leigh’s doctor has told her over and over that if they can get a blastocyst embryo to transfer, her chances are 40% that she will get pregnant. Leigh asks if this is among all age groups at one point, and her doctor truthfully tells her yes, but neglects to mention the clinic’s actual statistics for women Leigh’s age using their own eggs. Finally, she is given the grim numbers: 2.8% for 44 year old women, 6.6% for 43 year old women. After reading that section, I sat for a long time, almost unable to think. While I suppose Leigh’s doctor was technically correct in her numbers regarding blastocysts, it seems unconscionable to withhold the actual numbers, so pertinent to Leigh’s situation. It is a stunning betrayal, an abdication of the physician’s responsibility to carefully explain all potential risks and benefits of a procedure.
However, Avalanche is, at its core, a love story and in the end, it remains such. The love of Leigh for the child she wanted so much is evident as she slowly lays down and buries this almost palpable being in the end. Leigh’s great love for her family also shines throughout the novel, especially that for her nieces and nephews. There’s a stunning generosity of spirit – from the moment when her own mother initially refuses to support her attempts to have a child to stories about the children in her life – that runs throughout the book.
That Avalanche is a love story, despite these numerous betrayals, is very much a triumph. It turns the logic of “never give up” on its head. Certainly, none of this is without enormous loss and pain, something I don’t want to minimize. Instead, in drawing a boundary, accepting, and moving forward, Leigh preserves herself and her spirit in spite of everything she has faced.