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  • The Hardest Question:What was Good?: Reflections on Alison McGhee's The Opposite of Fate
  • Kathi Appelt (bio)

There are three questions at the heart of Alison McGhee's novel, The Opposite of Fate (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020): What was hard? What was impossible? What was good? It turns out that the last question is the most difficult to answer, especially for the protagonist Mallie, the victim of a horrendous crime.

As the story opens, we know straightaway that Mallie, a twenty-oneyear-old massage therapist, has been robbed, raped, viciously beaten, and left for dead on a street corner in Utica, NY. For sixteen months, she lay in a coma—the result of serious brain trauma, followed by an undiagnosable brain infection. To complicate matters, it's soon discovered that she is pregnant with her rapist's baby.

It takes only a moment for Mallie—or Mallie's body—to become the center of a raging battle. Mallie's cadre of closest acquaintances, including the man and woman who raised her after her father's death, her boyfriend Zach, and her brother Charlie, all believe that Mallie would choose to terminate her pregnancy.

On the other side, her mother, buoyed by her charismatic church community, insists that Mallie give birth. A custody battle over Mallie ensues, and the mother—of course—wins. She is also given custody of the baby, a boy, who is delivered by Caesarean section.

When Mallie, against all odds, wakes up, she has no idea that any of this has happened. She has no memory of the assault, the protests that were staged on the steps of the hospital, or of the birth. She is only aware of the "dark birds" that seem to circle at the edge of her vision.

The hardest, most impossible question becomes: what was good?

And then, in a twist in the plot, before Mallie fully regains consciousness, her mother dies of cancer, leaving the whereabouts of the baby unknown, his fate sealed by the courts. As well, Mallie's long-time boyfriend, Zach, has disappeared, deepening her sense of loss.

The first time I read this story, it was in manuscript form. Alison and I have been friends since the icy-cold January night in 2003, when we encountered each other in Noble Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. We were the newest members of the faculty in the low-residency [End Page 9] MFA program there, and we've been each other's friends and readers for all these years. In fact, we co-authored a novel called Maybe a Fox (Atheneum, 2016).

So, considering our personal connection, is it cheating to claim this book as my favorite?

After years and years and oh, so many years, of speaking with schoolchildren, possibly the most often-asked question I receive is, "what is your favorite book?" (I'm not convinced that kids really want to know. I mostly think it's a question they can ask without confessing that they haven't actually read any of my books). But that aside, I have always told them that Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, makes my heart sing. And it does. Really. I have loved it for such a long time.

First published by Jarrold and Sons London in 1877, its original title was "Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions. The Autobiography of a Horse. Translated from the Equine." I mean, who can't appreciate a book translated from the Equine? To me, it's the equivalent of the stone tablets that Moses translated from the God.

And I will add that Beloved, by Toni Morrison, published by Alfred Knopf in 1987, over a hundred years later, is the most important book I've ever read. It changed me in ways that seemed to deconstruct my actual cellular makeup, and then somehow stitch it back together, albeit in a different form.

But The Opposite of Fate, regardless of my kinship with Alison, speaks to me about the ways we fall into moral quandaries, the ways we're compelled to act in the presence of powerful forces, and how none of this can ever amount to a clear...


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pp. 9-11
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