New Maine Times Book Review 31 August 2011

Posted Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review 31 August 2011


by Ellen Meeropol                                                                                                                                                                 Red Hen Press 2011

201 pages, $24.95

ISBN 978-1-59709-499-3

reviewed by William D. Bushnell

Comic Bud Schulberg once said: "Living with a conscience is like driving a car with the brakes on." And nobody knows that better than Emily Klein. Emily is a woman with a well developed sense of conscience, and that's the problem, and it's not funny at all.  

Emily's profession as a nurse requires her to operate within strict medical and legal guidelines, but an unusual new patient challenges her senses of responsibility and humanity.

HOUSE ARREST is Ellen Meeropol's excellent debut novel about two very different women in a moral and ethical dilemma that transforms them both in ways neither of them expected. Meeropol has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern Maine, and her short stories have been widely published. She also has an extensive background in pediatric nursing.

Meeropol smartly combines her medical experience with solid writing talent to produce an original, riveting, and suspenseful yet warm and sensitive story that deftly explores the concepts of right and wrong, the unequal balance between rigid law and common sense, the unintended consequences of political activism, and the decisions people make when faced with tough life choices.  

Emily is a home-care nurse, single, 32 years old, with a family background she doesn't quite understand. She is assigned by a court to provide prenatal care to Pippa, a pregnant young woman on probation, under house arrest (wearing an electronic ankle monitor) while awaiting trial for the negligent death of her first baby. Pippa is a member of a fringe religious cult named the Family of Isis. Her baby and another child froze to death during an outdoor Winter Solstice ritual. Emily is well aware of the sensational "frozen babies case," and she is not happy with this assignment.

As Pippa's court date nears, she and Emily develop a reluctant bond, two women hiding their own family guilt over events long ago. A tenuous friendship slowly emerges, with each woman wary of the other. Then when Pippa asks Emily to do a favor for her that would violate her probation and jeopardize Emily's career, the nurse is suddenly faced with a terrifying moral dilemma, a conflict of conscience that seems overwhelming.  

Emily is in a tough spot. People have warned her not to become too attached to Pippa, to keep Pippa out of her personal life, but she is drawn to the young woman's innocence and apparent openness. Emily seems to have forgotten the admonition that cult members can be very effective manipulators. And now she must decide what to do about Pippa's risky request.

Confusing Emily's situation is a savvy probation officer who senses something is very wrong, a friendly computer hacker who doesn't know how to help, the cult leader whose motives are certainly suspect, Emily's co-worker and best friend who doesn't want to be involved at all, and her snarky boss who can't wait to fire Emily for the slightest infraction of the rules.  

Emily's final decision is surprising and stunningly brilliant, providing a very satisfying conclusion to a well-crafted fictional lesson in personal responsibility and the inadvertant consequences of people's well-intended decisions and actions, even if they are illegal.  Meeropol is a talented writer, and we can only hope she has more stories to tell.

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