Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

Knopf. Nov. 2019. 336p. ISBN 9781101871935. pap. $27.95. F
In 1726, Mary Toft, from the rural English town of Godalming, suddenly begins giving birth to dismembered rabbits. Local surgeon John Howard is called to attend the births, bringing with him teenage apprentice Zachary. The rational Howard is confounded as these births continue and writes to the top medical minds in London for assistance. As the experts venture to Godalming, word gets out, creating a circuslike atmosphere in the town. Finally, Mary is taken to London at the request of King George. When the “births” cease following her arrival, Howard and the others must face the possibility that they’ve been taken in by a hoax. Told largely from Zachary’s viewpoint, the book begins with Zachary and Howard’s attendance at a semi-fraudulent traveling show, “The Exhibition of Medical Curiosities,” with the suspension of disbelief required to accept the reality of these curiosities acting as a metaphor for the story of Mary Toft.
VERDICT Drawing on a true incident, Palmer (The Dream of Perpetual Motion) pits the age-old human desire to believe the miraculous against the emerging rationalism of the scientific community in Mary’s time. In this yearning to believe what we’d like to be true over the facts, the novel perhaps offers some parallels to our own time. [See Prepub Alert, 5/13/19.]

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