If you’re a big fan of the PBS series Call the Midwife — and if you’re really, really interested in birthing babies — Sally Hepworth’s novel, The Secrets of Midwives, might be just your cup of Horlicks: comforting, slightly sweet and unlikely to keep you awake at night.

This is the Australian writer’s first book to be published in the United States, and it’s getting a sizable publicity push. However, despite enthusiastic blurbs from the stellar Liane Moriarty and other well-known writers of women’s fiction, The Secrets of Midwivesdoesn’t quite live up to its marketing hype.

Part of the problem is that, aside from its unflinching clinical details of natural birthing techniques, there’s not much new in this three-generation story. The Secrets of Midwivesalternates chapters from the points of view of grandmother Floss, mother Grace and daughter Neva. All of them are trained midwives — but unfortunately, the three women are not terrifically engaging characters.

Floss and Grace live with their respective mates on Conanicut Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, while Neva lives on the mainland. Floss is an elderly lesbian and a long-ago emigrant from England; Grace is a 60-year-old hippie who distrusts M.D.s in general and loathes obstetricians in particular; and Neva, at 29, is a rebel who is single, unattached and, as her mother and grandmother are shocked to discover, 30 weeks pregnant.

“How could I not have known?” Grace whines several times. “I’m her mother, I’m amidwife.” Floss assures her daughter that Grace herself had “nothing more than a thickened waist until the eighth month.” Apparently Neva was surrounded by midwives and doctors who were oblivious to a pregnant woman under their very noses. She also refuses to reveal the identity of her baby’s father, which turns her mother into an unbearable snoop.

One major issue with The Secrets of Midwives: The men are bores. Grace’s long-dead dad is nasty and boring; Grace’s accountant husband is blandly boring; and Neva’s love interest, who is not her baby daddy, is sweet but boring. When you’re reading women’s fiction and you don’t care who the baby daddy is, that’s a big problem. Worse: The infrequent sex scenes aren’t very sexy.

Hepworth’s prose is workmanlike, and her similes occasionally stumble into sheer awkwardness: “When I wanted to launch into banter, my throat clamped shut like a preterm cervix.” Yes, really.

It is unclear why Hepworth decided to set The Secrets of Midwives in New England, since there seems no particular reason for its Rhode Island locale beyond the weary plot device of having a birth occur on an island during a winter storm. Conanicut is portrayed so nondescriptly that it could have been any coastal island in the Pacific Northwest.

Therein is one of the book’s biggest problems: It doesn’t feel authentic. The characters don’t think or talk like Americans, much less New Englanders. In one instance, Grace thinks: Red sky at morning, shepherds take warning. That’s the British version of the saying, and perhaps British-born Floss would have used it. But Grace grew up in the U.S., and most Americans would say, Sailors take warning.

The Secrets of Midwives is most likely to appeal to women readers who have a particular interest in birthing practices, especially in regard to home births and those that take place at birthing centers. It pays proper respect to the traditions of midwifery, and it paints a glowing picture of the deep satisfactions in assisting with a natural birth. But it simply doesn’t delve deeply enough into either its characters or its setting, and in the end, it fails to deliver.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

books@dallasnews.com

The Secrets of Midwives

Sally Hepworth

(St. Martin’s, $25.99)

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