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Book Review of Emma Gannon’s “Olive”: Fiction about Being Childless

Book cover of Emma Gannon’s Olive. Graphic of a woman with long black hair wearing an olive-green dress and white t-shirt on a bright yellow background.

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Before I begin my review of Emma Gannon’s novel Olive, I wanted to share with you a brief and, I felt, slightly strange conversation I had with a woman recently. We were chatting about books and life, and I had told her I was looking to make more friends near where I lived – I moved a bit before the pandemic started, so making new friends hasn’t been easy. She asked me what I liked to do and I rattled off some hobbies and interests – walking, knitting, reading, kickboxing, trying new food… The usual kind of things. And then she said rather abruptly, “Oh, you don’t have kids. Well, that won’t really work then.” And that was that, apparently.

When I came home, I told my husband about it – I wondered, because I was childless, was there no way I could start a new friendship with this woman? Like, how does that even work? I mean, I wasn’t asking to be friends with her children – I was asking to be friends with her. No where in my list of general hobbies or likes did I mention ‘eating children’s souls’, so I am not sure why she was so against it.

This brings me to my next observation and also the crux of Gannon’s book – there seems to be a division between the haves and the have nots and this just doesn’t apply to riches. There is this strange division between people who have children and people who don’t. Of course some people hate kids, but not every childless person is like that. So I wonder, are you a parent who doesn’t want to meet childless people? Are you a childless person who doesn’t want to meet parents? Who is actually creating this divide?

The pressure to have a child as a cis woman is REAL. It is all encompassing. It comes up with every person you meet – and the expectation is not if you will have kids, but when. So there is no nuance for those of us, who just really don’t think kids are for them for whatever personal reason that may be.

The reviews of Olive are mixed. A lot of readers found the main character, a childless Olive to be selfish and self-centred. That she doesn’t care about her friends who are in various stages of having or trying to have kids. I low-key wondered if the people writing those reviews were people with kids? Is my own bias coming through? And look, I am probably biased, but I am team Olive on this one. When Olive breaks up with her long-term partner because he wants kids and she doesn’t, none of her child-having friends seem to care. It is as though, unless it is to do with children – the problem doesn’t matter. Now, Olive isn’t perfect either, but gosh could I relate to a woman who feels like a complete alien in society because she doesn’t want to have kids.

Books like Gannon’s are needed in society. I believe that books help us have difficult conversations. I think it helps us see the world through different eyes, and also help validate our experiences in the world. While there are many things that I couldn’t relate with when it came to Olive, there was so much that I could.

For cis women, in particular, who don’t want to have children or are unsure but leaning to no, there seems to be no place for society to see us. Or to accept us. People think we’re selfish; that we must hate children; that we are damaged goods; that we are fundamentally flawed. But when I talk to other people who are childless by choice, they often talk about how monumental the decision to have children is. No one I know, is not having kids because they are selfish child-hating banshees. They are some of the most kind and caring people I know. They take the role of child-raising so seriously that they wouldn’t want to rush into something that can completely change lives. Myself included.

I have gotten good at dodging conversations about having kids, but it still sucks when people prod and pry into your life and your reproductive organs like it is a display at an interactive science museum. I hope that if you are a woman – childless or not, that you can see yourself in the characters that Gannon creates. But furthermore, I would ask you to look at those around you – with or without children and to love and accept those women as they are.

Do you think there is a divide between the haves and have nots when it comes to having children? What side do you feel you are on? How do you want to change the conversation around women and having children? As always, share the reading love.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review of Emma Gannon’s “Olive”: Fiction about Being Childless

  1. Beautiful review, Hope! I can definitely say I LOVE having childless friends! It’s great to have friends with kids too but too often the conversation revolves around the kids and nothing else! I’m very lucky to be friends with you!

  2. Surely one of the best parts of being a woman in this day and age is the fact that you do have a choice in the matter of whether to breed or not, although not surprising that people’s preconceptions get in the way of this. Not surprising, but would be great if everyone could just leave it be. It doesn’t make you any less of a woman if you don’t pass on your genes and it’s grand to be able to have hobbies and interests outside of having kids – whether you’re a mother or not!

    I’m glad that there is literature being published now that reflects so many different points of view of the female experience – whether you’re a mother, or you choose to be childless, what it’s like to be queer/trans/etc. That’s the whole point of fiction isn’t it? To walk a mile out of your own situation, while wearing someone else’s shoes? Definitely keen to read this book now.

    • Curious to see what you think of the book. It got some angry reviews, but as I said, I thought it was a great depiction of some of the struggles you go through when you don’t have kids.