Book Review: Unpregnant by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan

WARNING: This blog post contains spoilers.

I sat down and binged Unpregnant in about two hours. It’s a fluffy, lighthearted read that flows well. But is that really what you want out of a story about a teenaged girl who can’t access an abortion?

This book disappointed me, mostly because I was expecting something more profound, in the vein of John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. This book is not that, so do not pick it up if you are looking for a “life lesson” or moral platitude in this story. However, if you’re looking for a silly, heartwarming read that you can breeze through during quarantine, this book is the perfect choice. Much like the show that Jenni Hendriks wrote for, How I Met Your Mother, it’s full of humorous moments that would never happen to anyone in real life, riddled with larger-than-life characters and perfect for binging on a rainy afternoon. In fact, parts of Victoria’s boyfriend’s personality reminded me of Ted Moseby, if Ted Moseby had been a stalkerish coward with a fetish for poking holes in condoms. But more on him later.

The plot of Unpregnant is simple enough to grasp. Victoria is a perfectionistic teenager growing up in the Christian Southwest. When she finds out she’s going to Brown University in the fall, her boyfriend pokes a hole in a condom to try and trap her in their small town life forever. Unwilling to shatter the perfect facade of a life she’s crafted for herself, she turns to her ex-best friend and school misfit Bailey, rather than her “real friends.” Together, they embark on a 900-mile roadtrip to New Mexico: the closest place for a 17-year-old to access an abortion without a parent’s permission.

As someone who is pro-choice, I can still admit that the portrayal of the anti-abortion Bible belt in Unpregnant felt caricatured at best. Anti-abortioners are given sinister, contradictory and, frankly, absurd personality traits — one is obsessed with his pet ferret; another is a bisexual stripper — that made them seem like mythical creatures you would never encounter in real life. As much as I support a woman’s right to choose, the book glosses over the many nuanced reasons why others who disagree do what they do in favor of supporting its own heavy-handed viewpoint.  

The book comes across as horribly one-sided by failing to develop any of the characters who disagree with the main character for having an abortion — but yet again, character development is a real problem throughout the entire novel, so that may be unintentional. Take the main character. Victoria is a typical Mary Sue: pretty, popular, valedictorian, with a boyfriend that everyone wants to date. Her only flaw is that she’s so afraid of upsetting anyone that she has no real personality or convictions. As a result, she comes across as an empty shell of the character for most of the book, until her epiphany in the final few chapters suddenly gives her a spine.

For most of the novel, Victoria’s inner dialogue pretty much sounds like, “Poor me, I’m so popular and privileged!” I mean, Victoria is the first in her family to go to college, and she’s going to Brown University. Ivy Leagues are expensive — and based on the setting of the book, it doesn’t seem like her family could afford that. Ivy Leagues also hand out scholarships like rationers during the Great Depression… that is to say, SPARINGLY. Besides getting good grades and participating in some extracurriculars, what did Victoria do to deserve that? Her life seems almost laughably perfect.

And of course, her boyfriend proposes at just the right moment so she can pawn off the ring to get money for their road trip. The best part? The abortion in the book is quoted at just about $500. Granted, it’s at a Planned Parenthood clinic in a part of the country where cost-of-living is low, but I searched the cost of a surgical abortion without insurance: in-clinic procedures can cost as much as $1,500, which is three times what Victoria paid. If Victoria were a real person (and, in a way, she is — many teen girls will find themselves in her shoes this year alone), I wonder if she would have been able to access an abortion at all.

Speaking of Victoria’s boyfriend, he is the least believable character in the entire book. Set aside the fact that most teenage boys I know are more terrified of getting a girl pregnant than they are of death itself, and you still get a coward who is so afraid of change that he is willing to selfishly puncture holes in condoms in order to trap his girlfriend in their small town life forever. This is another one of those cases where I feel the authors sacrificed the believability of the characters (making it impossible to empathize with them) for the sake of humor, when I think the subject called for greater nuance. It’s clear from the over-abundance of forced comedic moments and the over-the-top characters in Unpregnant that the writers are used to writing for the silver screen, not for printed pages.

Unpregnant is a good YA book, but despite the themes it covers, not the type of YA book that’s about to be placed on your child’s reading list anytime soon. Granted, Victoria is portrayed most realistically as she is about her have her abortion — as certain of her decision, but not without her moments of doubt. I haven’t had an abortion myself, but the way she feels about her abortion is how I imagine I would feel if I were to have one. Still, the book handles abortion in a way that refuses to face the reality of teen pregnancy in the conservative Southwest, and I doubt neither pro-choice nor anti-abortion pundits would find it particularly believable.

Don’t get me wrong: YA needs more representation of controversial subjects such as abortion. Books like Unpregnant pave the way for young adults to form their own opinions on these matters separately from their parents, and open up the door for conversations about difficult subjects. But frankly, it’s not realistic — and not just because of the preposterous situations Victoria and Bailey find themselves in.

Frankly, Unpregnant romanticizes abortion as the adventure of a lifetime. As a young woman who supports the right to choose, a teenage girl needing to travel 900 miles to get an abortion without parental permission (not to mention, being required to have an ultrasound first!) is the stuff of nightmares, not buddy road trip stories. If Victoria were a real teenager living in Missouri, the realities of teen pregnancy would be much more grim and far less fanciful than Unpregnant imagines. Her life would probably be much more like that of her sister, who is a frazzled young mother of three with another baby on the way, married to her high school sweetheart.

Importantly, however, Unpregnant gives us food for thought about what women are willing to go through to get an abortion when they are certain of their decision. It’s entertaining and full of heartwarming bonding moments between Victoria and Bailey. In fact, their friendship may be the best — and most realistic — part of the entire book. But for the sake of women everywhere, let’s hope the abortion comedy is not a genre that’s about to take off anytime soon.

I’ll end by noting that many readers on Goodreads have posted that for a better portrayal of teen abortion (that still involves two friends on a road trip), you should read Girl on the Verge by Sharon Biggs Waller. I, for one, will be reading that book, as soon as I am done burning my copy of Unpregnant. (Just kidding!)

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