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The Misconceiver

About this book

This fresh release of an epochal novel from the late 1990s unlocks the dystopic world of the United States circa 2026, when Roe v. Wade has been overturned and abortion finally banned in all 50 states. Following in the steps of her dead sister and mother, narrator Phoebe Masters works in the computer industry by day and at night performs illegal "misconceptions" in her basement, restoring to desperate women some measure of control over their own bodies. Outside, technology has progressed but social change has moved backward. Married women tend to stay home. Amniocentesis is illegal. The worst punishment for rape is a paternity suit. Homosexuality is back in the closet.


Yet despite her profession, despite the connection she sees between her job stamping out malware and her illicit vocation terminating pregnancies, Phoebe holds few political beliefs—until a love affair forces her to choose between closing herself off and revealing her secret. Betrayed, arrested, and jailed, she begins to confront the multiple contradictions of her world. Eventually she must choose—between revenge and forgiveness, family and self, guilt and accountability, love and action.


While The Misconceiver initially presents its characters' repression matter-of-factly, the accretion of detail concerning their emotional and physical pain makes this far more than a merely political novel. Phoebe is fiercely loyal to the memory of her sister but anxious for her own freedom. Haunted by memory and hunted by the law, she begins to find her true self even as she sheds her old identity. Set in a future that is not far-fetched but well within the range of our imagination, The Misconceiver not only addresses a vivid issue of our time but also brings to life characters and relationships that could well be ours, just over the horizon of time.


From Lucy

I wrote this book in the mid-1990s, when, after the Supreme Court's affirmation of reproductive rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, I was receiving postcard after postcard warning that the anti-choice movement would now put its full force behind overturning the Roe v. Wade decision. I realized I didn't know what that meant, nor did I know what it would be like to come of age in a country where women's rights were being curtailed rather than strengthened. To find out, I did some research into legal scholars' predictions of what would befall us, and then I wrote this book.


In terms of the fate of Roe, I was off by two decades. Details were hard to predict. In 1997, there was no right to same-sex marriage, and I did not imagine there ever would be. There was no wireless internet. Cell phones were rare, smartphones nonexistent. The World Trade Center in New York stood tall and proud, we had not invaded Iraq, no 21st-century pandemic had struck, and Donald Trump was a New York City realtor. I looked forward across thirty years and made my best guess as to how the world would stand, politically and technologically. I have not updated any of these details, even though the book is reentering the world in the 2020s. The main point—what happens in a technologically advanced world where human rights retreat and we let the climate founder—remains. The fact that so much of the book may ring true today testifies to the adage that if you look ahead three decades with a worst-case-scenario hypothesis, you may hit the mark. And that the time to change that future is now.

What People Are Saying

The Misconceiver is a startling novel in ways that highlight how unsurprising most pro-choice novels are. Ferriss isn't interested in merely confirming our liberal ideals; she makes us work for them. . . . The novel offers a challenging exploration of one woman's struggle to work through the profound moral dilemmas of her life. -- Ron Charles, The Washington Post


The Misconceiver . . . is energetic, increasingly scary and suspenseful, and even intermittently sexy. Ferriss's writing stay sharp throughout. From time to time, the prose is beautifully lyrical, even as Ferriss describes the grotesqueries of Phoebe's imprisonment. . . . Ferriss imagines the desperate consequences when public policy and national politics dispense with the morality of justice and care. Equally important, she grapples with the ways that individual actions require a vibrant moral basis. The Misconceiver, like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, tells a story that places women's need to control their own bodies at the center of a society's moral code. -- Rickie Solinger, San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle


The Misconceiver is primarily a powerful novel of dystopia. Ferriss has made the world a much darker place, just twenty-odd years from now. A great economic crash has given power back to men, there are pro-natal packages for women, and no employment for wives. There is even a move to preserve the life of the unborn child in preference of that of the mother. Gays have to live carefully, the liberal arts are forgotten; no one eats meat because of the diseases. . . . But it is also a very tense thriller. Ferriss is a fine writer, and in this dark and starkly realistic tale, she answers all her own questions, pulling no punches. --The Times, London


Phoebe's eventual understanding of how she will gain the courage to struggle against the complex web of inhumane policies adds tension and emotional catharsis. And her knowledge of how she will share her life has real poignancy. If in this novel Ferriss makes you think, she will also make you feel. --Publishers Weekly (starred review)


In Ferriss' convincing early 21st century dystopia abortion is outlawed. At great risk, her eponymous female lead seeks to return to women some small measure of reproductive rights. The clandestine nature of her work, and self doubts, imperil even this feeble lifeline. As Ray Bradbury once said, 'I'm not here to predict the future, I'm here to warn about it.' --Time Out, London


Ferriss infuses The Misconceiver with integrity through her taut style, her tense plot and exciting subplots, and her characters, both quick and dead…. The Misconceiver stands stalwartly by John Irving's Cider House Rules as a compassionate novel about abortion and, thus, about women. --St. Louis Post Dispatch


Thought-provoking and disturbing…. It's not really fair to Ferriss to say The Misconceiver is "in the vein of The Handmaid's Tale," as her publisher does on the jacket.  It's too subtle and original for that. --Contra Costa Times


"A powerful, painful book." – Frederick Busch, author of Girls